It is no secret that I have a soft spot for Woody Allen's movies and I was therefore heartened that his most recent film has done record box office in America -- unlike most of his output over the last many years which have at best reached respectable but not particularly startling grosses Stateside. I will not deny that he has turned out the occasional clunker, but most of his films manage to sparkle on my moviemeter (I even liked "Jade Scorpion"). Perhaps this film's success is a growing resentment on the part of those audiences seeking grown-up entertainment in contrast to the likes of "Hangover 2".
This is Allen's second Paris-set movie and can be taken as a love letter to the City of Lights, both past and present. It begins as a romantically filmed three minute travelogue of typical and less typical Parisian views before introducing us to Owen Wilson's lead character Gil, a jaded Hollywood scriptwriter yearning to turn out his own Great American Novel. He is travelling with his fiancee Rachel McAdams (I prefer her as a brunette, not the shallow blonde she plays here) and her pushy, wealthy conservative parents. After running into her friends from home, Michael Sheen -- playing a know-it-all pedantic visiting professor -- and his pretty vacant wife, who try to organise their stay in the city with a selection of cultural and 'fun' outings, Gil baulks one evening preferring to walk back to their hotel rather than 'go dancing'. At the stroke of midnight he encounters a vintage car and its revelling occupants who whisk him into a time warp, landing him in the artistic Paris of the 1920s. There he meets the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his ditzy wife Zelda, Cole Porter, Picasso, Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein (who agrees to critique his nearly-completed novel), and other glitterati of the period. He also meets Picasso's latest sexual conquest played by Marion Cotillard who has boasted previous liaisons with Modigliani and Braque. Gil is growingly taken with her on his subsequent midnight rambles (none of which McAdams is prepared to believe thinking him unhinged) and is tempted to stay -- if he could -- with this new love and her remarkable circle of friends. However one evening the pair of them end up in yet another time period the Belle Epoque of the 1890s with the likes of Lautrec, Gaughin,and Degas; Cotillard elects to remain there, suggesting that all of us are capable of looking back and prefering idealised more attractive times.
The film is well-cast, but not as full of starry names as many of the Woodster's earlier movies, with a number of lesser-known British and French players. However among the star performances we have Kathy Bates as a less pompous and less masculine Stein, the heralded appearance of Carla Bruni (Mrs. Sarkozy) as a museum guide (a completely acceptable and attractive performance), and the lately growingly-annoying Adrien Brody in a here spot-on embodiment of Salvador 'Da-lee'. However the movie's main strength is Wilson's winning interpretation of the previous 'Woody Allen role'. Unlike earlier incarnations like Kenneth Branagh and Will Ferrell, Wilson is not striving for a Woody imitation, although one can almost hear Allen in his cadences, words, and obsessions (not surprising since Allen did write the script). However he makes the role his own with his winning combination of sweet reactions and innocent wonder.
I suspect the playing of this popular actor has much to do with the movie's relative success in the US, since the movie is charming rather than laugh-out-loud funny, apart from one truly delicious joke toward the end concerning the detective that McAdam's father has hired to report on Gil's midnight wandering. Perhaps I am underestimating the tastes and intelligence of the average American audience, but I suspect that a lot of the in-jokes possibly passed way over some of their heads. I doubt that many of the modern masses remember folk like Josephine Baker or can appreciate the sly conceit of Gil's suggesting to Dali's friend Luis Bunuel the outline of the plot of the latter's 1962 movie, "The Exterminating Angel", to that director's dismissive disbelief. Irregardless of this intellectual oneupmanship on my part, adult audiences have obviously warmed to the gist of Allen's time-travelling fantasy and they have shown themselves to be truly grateful for this sparkling and amusing entertainment.