Midnight in Paris

While watching Woody Allen’s latest film, Midnight in Paris, you may feel as though you’re getting a forbidden peek at your college English professor’s dreams. Would-be writer Gil (Owen Wilson, inexplicably—but quite effectively—serving as the stand-in for Allen) travels to Paris with his insufferable fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and winds up, owing to some unexplained magic, spending his nights hobnobbing with some of the greatest creative minds of the 1920s: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein, just to name a few. He slips away into the bygone era every night at the stroke of midnight, but returns to his real life before the next morning; his time in the past is exciting, fulfilling, and even romantic, a clear contrast to his time in the present.

The wish fulfillment elements are all there: these literary and artistic luminaries welcome him warmly, a beautiful woman falls for him, and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) even offers to read his manuscript! Still, this decidedly tame turn of events (he doesn’t even get into a fight with Hemingway!) works perfectly for the movie’s general themes of escape, nostalgia, and an overly-romanticized approach to the past. Gil longs for a time he has never even known, and shuns a present seemingly overstuffed with both vulgarity and pretentiousness. He believes he could be the writer he wants to be if only he were constantly surrounded by these creative people, and inspired by their festive milieu. What he doesn’t realize—though Allen clearly does—is that this time period will never be as special to the people living in it; it will always be a more exciting place to visit, to dream about, than to experience day to day.

Certainly, these writers, painters—and even a matador!—are important figures today, but back in their own time, they had no promise of enduring success. They were vulnerable to the usual worries of writer’s block, of not producing their best possible work, of fading into oblivion. And thus, they, too, may have daydreamed of earlier times, of artists they would never know, but ones whose work continued to influence them. One can only wonder if Gil, having found a magical portal to a more anonymous 1920s Paris, would have been equally charmed by what he found. Certainly, it would be less thrilling to talk with a random Parisian about Hemingway’s latest novel than it would be to talk with Hemingway himself. But therein lies the moviegoer’s dilemma: Is it possible to understand the folly of Gil’s nostalgia while still reveling in the excitement of seeing these literary expatriates brought back to life?

I hope so, because I found every moment with them to be a treat. Though played somewhat broadly—almost always for laughs—these figures fit just perfectly with how we now imagine them. Hemingway (Corey Stoll), a macho caricature, is always ready for a fight, eagerly asking Gil (no doubt with a nod to Wilson’s signature broken nose) if he boxes. Zelda Fitzgerald (Alison Pill), flighty but adorable, flits and flirts through every party, much to the concern of her obviously enamored husband. They certainly seem like the kind of people whom anyone would enjoy meeting at a party, but the fact that these people are literary celebrities—and that this party is accompanied by Cole Porter singing and playing the piano—just makes it that much better.

Ultimately, that’s how this movie feels: like an exclusive invitation to the best party you could ever attend. Sure, it’s nostalgic, and contains the usual trappings of nostalgia. Nonetheless, it’s a thrill, particularly for us former English majors, who have already spent plenty of time with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and T.S. Eliot in the usual way. It’s the perfect antidote to the blockbuster comic book movies that dominate the summer box office. And as you barely stomach your way through yet another movie about cars turning into robots, you can at least sit back and think, “we’ll always have Midnight in Paris.”

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