Screenwriter Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is on holiday with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) in Paris on the back of his father-in-theory’s business trip. Gil is writing his first novel, in love with Paris and wants to move there after he marries. He loves the Parisian golden age of the 1920s and he likes to walk the streets at night. When Inez meets her ex, Paul (Michael Sheen), a pompous intellectual, with his girlfriend Carol, they spend time doing touristy stuff. At night they go to party, Paul invites Gil and Inez dancing. Typically Gil prefers the introvert life and walks back to the hotel. At midnight, a car stops by and the inhabitants invite Gil to party, only for it to be one in the 1920s with all these legendary writers, musicians and their ilk.
“Nostalgia is denial, denial of the painful present” says the pretentious and irritatingly pompous Paul (Sheen). The film is all about this Golden Age thinking which is the idea that a different time period is better than one’s own. For Gil, that is Paris in the 1920s, where the likes of Zelda (Alison Pill) and Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) dwelled, as well as the great Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) and others. I don’t think there’s anyone that’s guilt-free of wanting to live in another time. For someone like me, or Gil, it’s a daily struggle and Midnight in Paris only enforces the fact that the 1920s is the stuff dreams are made of, my dreams. The present is a bore, and the 1920s seem that much more exciting.
What got me from the start is how Gil and Inez got engaged in the first place. They couldn’t be more different if they tried. Gil is a writer who just wants to write and live a good life, free of economic attachments and the corruptness of LA, Inez is the complete opposite. She loves America and its capitalist agendas, an ideology probably encouraged by her business-minded father (Kurt Fuller). Typically Woody Allen has filled this picture with subtle undertones like its nods to neo-capitalism, and gender via the love triangle-relationship between Hemingway (Stoll), Picasso and Adriana (Marion Cotillard). This is an incredible screenplay. It would be stupid if it wasn’t, considering it won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 2012.
From have showers in order to being able to think properly to late night/early morning ideas for his novel to his general solitariness, Gil Pender is the archetypal writer. He’s truly living in his own la la land, and he loves it. He hates the materialism of the today, and he’s very comfortable in his own head, away from reality. And to be honest, I can’t really blame the guy, especially when his in-laws and his wife’s friends are so “normal”. One night, he goes walking through Paris only to find himself at a party in the 1920s. Gil sees he may be able to live his la la land after all, and comes to surprising conclusions, including that life isn’t worth anything if you’re only living it for someone else, even if that’s your fiancee who doesn’t really get you.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” is the opening line from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s an odd one, and it’s not quite midnight. There’s always been something magical about midnight. In Cinderella, that’s when the Fairy Godmother’s spell wore off. The impact of the midnight hour is found out by Gil when he sees it’s the time when his Paris truly wakes up. And his midnight in Paris only fuels his dreams to settle there. It’s the city of lights and the city of love. Yet his girlfriend, the person he’s meant to be in love with, does not see Paris as he does. All she sees are its values in terms of money. She’s sees it as an aristocrat, where he sees it for its scenic beauty and artistic inspiration.
Midnight in Paris is set between two times, the 1920s and the 2010s. And Paris is great in both of them. In the 20s, Gil meets his writing idols Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, the great authors of The Old Man and the Sea and The Great Gatsby. The streets are still at night in the 20s, but the bars are crazy. In the day, in 2010, the streets are busy but there’s still a quietness to them, as shown in one great scene when Gil buys a French book and then gets the guide to read it to him, translating it as she goes along. Both versions of Paris are incredibly nice to look at, even seductive: the streets, the lifestyle, the cars, the parties, the people. Woody Allen makes Paris look incredible, including showing off great sights like L’arc de Triomph.
This is the only Owen Wilson performance I like. I generally don’t like Owen Wilson films but he is a very good Woody Allen stand-in here. He’s not a cliché and he’s not playing Owen Wilson. This is a very human performance. The way he talks is very human, and it doesn’t feel scripted or even that he’s acting. Wilson’s performance only enhances Marion Cotillard (Macbeth). Though, she has this seamless quality to steal every scene she’s in. Not just in this film, but in her other ones as well. And her character is portrayed as a lifeline of Paris itself. She attracts us to this very special city, she enhances this city’s appeal. She’s an embodiment of 1920s Paris, a place where anything can happen with no filter to any scenario.
This pre-Avengers Tom Hiddleston is brilliant as Scott Fitzgerald and Corey Stoll (Black Mass) as Ernest Hemingway is brilliant too. He has some of the best lines. “No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure”. Corey Stoll and Tom Hiddleston as these two legends are two of the best castings in any film in the history of film. And Midnight in Paris is one of the best-casted films this century. Alison Pill as Zelda Fitzgerald is another gem, with a one-liner or two. She epitomises another one of those artist stereotypes. “I realise I’ll never write a great lyric and my real talent lies in drinking”. Not all creatives are drinkers, but it does seem to be common.
From the cinematography to the merging of period and contemporary sets to the acting performances and that epic screenplay, Midnight in Paris is a film for every type of creative person, but it’s a film every aspiring writer should watch. If poetry was a film, this is it. Every line feels like it was written by some great bard. It shows every writer’s great woe, but also the happiness that can come of it.