Midnight in Paris: The Lost Generation Reborn

May 25, 2011

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Midnight in Paris: The Lost Generation Reborn

Satire is a reactionary art form powered by contempt for the present. Although Woody Allen, now 75, has always espoused conventionally liberal views, he’s one of the last figures in American culture unaffected by the 1960s’ faux egalitarianism.

Having turned 21 in 1956, Woody’s enthusiasms remain those of a cultured mid-century New Yorker. In his famous speech at the end of 1979’s Manhattan on what makes life worth living, Allen references Mozart, Flaubert, Cézanne, Louis Armstrong, Groucho Marx, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Willie Mays, and Ingmar Bergman—in other words, nobody from the 1960s or 1970s. Like Ralph Lauren, Woody Allen has always been an old-fashioned snob.

In his delightful new romantic fantasy Midnight in Paris, Allen takes on a challenge similar to Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited: recreating a vanished golden age. To Woody, it’s the 1920s Paris of the Lost Generation modernists.

Midnight in Paris stars Owen Wilson (Wedding Crashers) as The Woody Allen Character: a well-paid but artistically frustrated Malibu script doctor named Gil who is struggling to finish his literary novel about a nostalgia shop. This is less of a stretch for Wilson than you’d think: Before getting sidetracked into Hollywood stardom, the blond Texan star cowrote Wes Anderson’s first three movies. Here, Wilson’s guileless boyishness and prep-school politeness make him hugely likable in the role of a kvetching rich guy. Gil is vacationing in Paris with his unappreciative fiancée (Rachel McAdams, her hair dyed blonde and tousled to look like Allen favorite Scarlett Johansson).

“Like Ralph Lauren, Woody Allen has always been an old-fashioned snob.”

Woody’s modern Paris looks stereotypically superb. Allen sets his camera exactly where generations of postcard photographers have stood to shoot the Eiffel Tower, the Paris Opera, and Montmartre’s Basilique du Sacré-Cœur. Not surprisingly, the only modern Parisian landmark that meets Woody’s approval is I. M. Pei’s glass pyramid addition to the Louvre. The inside-out 1977 Centre Pompidou is conspicuously absent.

In contrast to Jonathan Demme’s 2002 dud, The Truth About Charlie, which exulted in a multiracial Paris that didn’t seem much different from Houston, Woody has no interest in the Paris of immigrant Muslim youths setting cars on fire. His Paris, like his New York, is 95 percent white, with the remainder stylish blacks.

Gorgeous as it may look, contemporary Paris bores Gil. Instead, he’s fascinated that he’s walking the same streets as his 1920s idols. A favorable post-WWI exchange rate made Paris cheap for affluent Midwesterners such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Cole Porter. Those artists weren’t starving. The title of Hemingway’s Parisian memoir, A Moveable Feast, can be read literally: A three-course dinner with wine cost $0.20 back then.

While Gil is out walking one midnight, an ancient Duesenberg limousine full of young flappers pulls up and carries him back in time to a 1927 Charleston dance party where Porter is pounding out on the piano his new song “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love).” Paul Johnson observed, “The keynote of the 1920s musical was joy, springing from an extraordinary exuberance in the delight of being alive and American.” Joy is the dominant emotion Woody conveys in his movie about an American in Paris.

Every midnight, Gil hops in the limo and meets more legends. Fitzgerald introduces Gil to Hemingway, who speaks only in oracular run-on sentences about courage and grace and manhood. Hemingway takes him to meet Gertrude Stein (a businesslike Kathy Bates), Picasso, and Matisse. The funniest cameo is Adrien Brody’s impression of surrealist Salvador Dali (or, as he refers to himself in the third person, “dah-LEEEE”). Brody plays the mannered Spaniard as a confident version of Manuel the Waiter from Fawlty Towers.

Cheap as Paris was for foreigners, how could modern Gil pay for all this high-class socializing with a wallet of credit cards and Euros? What could you bring from the present that would be accepted as payment in 1927? Gold coins?  Yet the question, “How can he pay for all that?” can be asked about every character in every Woody Allen movie. Plausibility be damned, Woody just likes expensive-looking stuff.

With contemporary characters, all this conspicuous consumption can be irritating because they are outcompeting us. In contrast, Woody’s love of opulence is pleasing when set in the past. Fitzgerald’s Marcelled hairdo of shiny waves would be annoying if, say, Justin Timberlake were paying to have it done now. Yet when a style is 85 years out of fashion, it’s hard not to enjoy it.

Allen is aware that 1920s artists are dauntingly esoteric material for 21st-century audiences, so he keeps his jokes on the nose. It’s all very predictable for anybody who has seen a half-dozen Woody Allen movies. Still, watching a master craftsman rummage through his well-worn bag of tricks with the sole intention of making his audience happy for 90 minutes is deliriously infectious.

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