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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Midnight in Paris (Limited Release Date: 5-20-2011)

        When most people hit 75, little more is expected of them. By that time, a pretty sturdy majority have made all of the real accomplishments that they're going to make, and we cherish what they have done in their expansive existence. No such luck for Woody Allen. Midway through his Eighth decade of life (and Sixth making movies), Allen has become something of a punchline for people who would rather focus on his eyebrow-raising romances and lesser flicks than give the man his due. The fact is that the Woodsman has a track record that should prove laughable to no one: Since 1966, he's acted in 41 films, written 48, and directed 45, and, possibly most astonishing of all, since 1969, he's helmed a movie annually, failing to produce a product on only Four different occasions (2004, 1991, 1981, 1976). And if being prolific isn't enough for you, consider the man's 21 Oscar nominations: 14 writing, 6 directing, and One acting. And while we're at it, I might as well chip in that he's directed a grand total of 16 Oscar nominated performances, 6 of which went on to take home the trophy (which is a staggeringly high winning percentage). Sure, the guy puts out a clunker from time to time, but after such a long career with such an emphasis on production, can you really blame the guy? And for every couple duds, even Woody's detractors would be wise to note that he's got a real winner.

        In case you haven't already heard, or my flowery intro hasn't given it away, Midnight in Paris is just such a winner, serving simultaneously as a breath of fresh air and a warm return to familiar Allen territory. His newest stars Owen Wilson as Gil Pender, a screenwriter/Hollywood hack (his words, not mine) who deeply believes himself to have been born in the wrong era. Vacationing with his bride-to-be Inez (Rachel McAdams), Gil falls head over heels in love with the city of Paris, singing its praises as he recites the words of his most idolized Jazz-era artists. But when Inez starts continually wanting to spend time with an insufferably snobbish friend of her's (Michael Sheen), Pender takes to walking the city alone at night, a habit that somehow finds him stumbling into the exact 1920's Paris of his fantasy, rubbing elbows with each and every single one of his heros.

        As always, it's worth noting that Woody is a distinct flavor, and if you don't have the taste for it, you likely never will. But there's something distinctive about Paris that needs to be noted as somewhat unique among the man's catalogue: It's a genuinely happy movie. For its whole runtime, the flick is alternating between Two tones, Romance and Mirth, and if you're anything like me, those are Two pretty good feelings. Reminiscent of the opening montage of Manhattan, Paris begins with a series of still shots of the city, creating a tangible mood and place from the get go. Allen has always been great at describing the ambiance of a metropolis without words, and here his love of the city allows you to see it through Gil's enthusiastic, ecstatic eyes. The editing of the thing can feel a bit clunky of half-baked at times, but Cinematographers Darius Khondji and Johanne Debas have no problems activating the eye's sweet tooth, and if watching the movie doesn't make you want to catch the next flight to France, you might want to get yourself checked out.

        But enough about the Woodman and his fellows behind the scenes; The actors also really shine in this one. Wilson might be the best, 'Woody-Allen-Stand-In,' this side of Woody himself; He's goofy and charming and convincingly giddy about his discovery, a perfectly earnest and charismatic lead performance that manages to lend a little sunshine to the part of a stereotypical Woody leading man. The real-world sequences are filled with fine acting focused on showing the awfulness and self-centered nature of the average person (I told you it was a Woody movie), none so accomplished as the mind-numbing arrogance of Sheen's scholarly ass. What's more, the fantasy moments are even better, filled to the brim with cheap but true laughs, and featuring one brilliant caricature of a larger-than-life literary after another. To spoil who pops up would be to take away some of the movie's fun, but I feel compelled to note that Corey Stoll makes one hilarious Hemingway.

        Expecting Woody to break new ground at his age is simply unreasonable: When's the last time that you saw a person in their mid-70's reconsider anything? The guy is as stuck in his ways as he's always been and will always be, but, as it turns out, his ways can still prove light, slick, funny, and heartening. Midnight in Paris isn't exactly a movie to set the world on fire, and there's no doubt in my mind that my English degree helped me like it more than many will, but it's light, glowing entertainment that arrives at a surprisingly profound and welcome moral at the end. It's the work of a master in the twilight of his career, one that sees him smiling a genuine smile for the first time in years, and it left me grinning ear to ear.

Grade: A-

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