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Woody Allen isn't religious, but he has a rabbinical side, and over the past decade his films have become more and more like Talmudic parables for atheists. On the surface, these movies are streamlined, even breezy, and they often have voice-over narration to get the pesky exposition out of the way fast. Philosophically, Allen has settled on resignation, a cosmic shrug: There's no God, no justice, people are inconstant, life is meaningless — so where do you wanna eat?
I have a problem, though, buying into the worldview of someone whose world is a closed ecosystem. There's no evidence that Allen lets any contemporary culture penetrate his hard, defensive shell. Music stopped in the '40s, if not earlier, ditto literature, ditto film — with a pass for select European directors. He seems locked in a daydream of the past.
The good news is that Allen has made the lure of nostalgia the theme of his supernatural comedy Midnight in Paris, which might be why this is his best, most emotionally pure film in over a decade. It's a romantic fantasy that's also a sly act of self-criticism.
The time-traveling hero, Gil, played by Owen Wilson, is a successful Hollywood screenwriter on holiday in Paris with his brisk, upwardly mobile fiancee, Inez, played by Rachel McAdams. Gil considers himself a hack and, to Inez's horror, wants to write novels instead of movies. How he wishes he could be a writer in Paris — better yet, Paris in the '20s, alongside Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and all those other giants living high yet creating enduring works of art.
You can almost hear the familiar Woody Allen cadences in the film, yet Owen Wilson isn't the usual East Coast intellectual Allen hero, and he makes the lines his own. Apart from Mia Farrow in The Purple Rose of Cairo, this is the finest lead performance in an Allen film that wasn't by Allen — and finer than many of Allen's, too. You sense the vein of wistfulness under his stoner cool, the longing for definition behind his spaciness. It's a thrilling moment when he sits forlornly on some steps in the rain at midnight, a vintage automobile rumbles by, the champagne-swilling occupants invite him in, and he's suddenly back in the '20s.
How? No explanation. Allen just breezes past all that, the way he did in Purple Rose and, before that, in his great 1970s short story, "The Kugelmass Episode," happily eliminating the sci-fi wheels and pulleys that tend to suck up so much screen time. Gil is just there — counseling Scott about Zelda, drinking with Hemingway, showing parts of his novel to Gertrude Stein, and falling in love with a woman named Adriana, played by a stunningly beautiful Marion Cotillard. Adriana bonds with Gil over his love of the past — except the past she loves is the 1890s and not her vulgar present. His '20s ideal woman hates the '20s — a bitter irony.
Allen doesn't do anything interesting with Scott and Zelda — my guess is he's too in awe of them. But his Hemingway, played with forthright manly-manliness by Corey Stoll, is a riot; and as Gertrude Stein, Kathy Bates proves that in an absurd context, playing it straight can make you funnier than a thousand clowns.
Midnight in Paris is a doodle, but it's easy and graceful, and its ambivalent view of nostalgia has all kinds of resonance. As I watched, I felt a different sort of nostalgia: not for the Parisian '20s but for the days in which Allen regularly turned out freewheeling, pitch-perfect tall tales in print and onscreen. The movie is so good it takes you back to those days, which were the days, my friend.