… It was the best of times …

Midnight in Paris is as much a pleasure to watch as Woody Allen’s best films even though it’s not as good — the fantasy is so powerful.  This time travel film takes us, and its main character, Gil (Owen Wilson), a successful screen writer, back to the Paris of the 1920’s where we meet the artists and literati who made the city the brilliant center that we all go to Paris looking for — even those too young or unworldly to realize it.

Gil is ensconced in a fancy hotel with his beautiful fiancee, Inez — of course that’s part of the fantasy, too, that and the French food.  She and her rich, conventional right wing parents are dutifully intent on seeing the sights — Versailles and all that — guided by a know-it-all smart guy and his adoring girlfriend, but Gil — vaguely discontent, and yearning to be a serious novelist, has another agenda.  He withdraws from family fun to search out his own Paris — the Paris of his imagination — and wonder of wonders at the stroke of midnight, finds it.

Swept off mysteriously in a chauffeured car, he’s delivered to the intellectual and artistic soirees of 1920’s Paris, where Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald rub shoulders with Hemingway and Picasso while Cole Porter plays the piano [partial list of famous people], and eventually everybody who is anybody ends up at Gertrude Stein’s for intellectual discussions, artistic critiques, gossip and lovemaking.

Oh how marvelous to encounter Hemingway (Corey Stoll), young, darkly handsome, intense, having just published his first novel speaking in the dead-pan of his writing style about courage under fire  (“I’ve read all you work,” Gil tells him though at this point Hemingway’s only published one book).  How delicious to see Zelda dive too deep into the absinthe with the Princeton-elegant Scott guiding her to the next party.  And joy of joys, how wonderful that our very American Gil with Wilson’s farm-boy drawl, patent simplicity and naïve aura (though he is a successful screenwriter, Woody Allen has his cake and eats it to on that one) not only meets but draws to himself Picasso’s mistress, played by Marion Cotillard looking like the dancer Olga Khokhlova whom Picasso loved at the time.  (So much for prissy, materialistic Inez, in any time zone.)

And. here’s something really valuable, Gil gets a focused critique on the pages of his novel by none other than Gertrude Stein – it’s going to serve him in good stead back in his own time.  To see Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein sitting under Picasso’s famous, groundbreaking portrait of Gertrude and looking exactly like her is a high point of the movie and feels, for the moment, a high point of life (they really don’t have the same facial structure but Bates and Woody’s camera pull it off).

Gil’s travel back to the 20’s in the chauffeured car is smooth but some of the other time travels lurch and are less believable, and are accompanied by preaching about the value of being of one’s own time that sounds like forced virtue.

And Allen seems so in love with the idea of this movie that he hurries through characters, settling on caricatures for his artists and writers from the past rather than on real people, let alone the creators they were, engaged in hot struggles to develop their modes of expression.  For all the fun it is to engage with Hemingway, his clipped, cliché-ridden courage talk is so obvious it’s camp, and while Adrien Brody does a great look-alike caricature bit of Salvador Dali, it’s a bit, not a person.  So if you have another way of being in Paris at its beautiful best (appealing photography) and chatting with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Matisse and Picasso, by all means do it.

If not, see this movie.  It’s a treat:  once again we have to thank Woody Allen for giving us great pleasure, the most fun, and a fantasy fulfilled.

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