It may seem excessive to devote an entire blog to analysing just why Midnight in Paris has been such a success, but I think it deserves serious consideration.
On the most superficial level it’s not hard to see why it’s been such a box office hit. It’s been given a promotional push far exceeding any Woody Allen film for a long time, even more so than the much heralded return to form (and Jonathan Rhys-Meyer star-making) Match Point. The marketing push has also largely and cunningly disguised the fact that it’s a Woody Allen film, his stock not being that high. Instead the notion of the film being a fantastical Owen Wilson romantic comedy with funny lines and a great high concept has been touted in its endless TV spots. I’ve heard some people argue convincingly that even the evocative and romantic title is enough to entice people to check it out, without the Owen Wilson selling point.
But of course once you’ve sat down in the cinema and realised with horror from the jazz soundtrack and the credits font that it’s a Woody Allen film we come to the even more surprising part of the success story – that this is not a bait and switch deal, this really is a fantastical Owen Wilson romantic comedy with screamingly funny lines and a great high concept brilliantly developed. Owen Wilson and Rachel MacAdams are fantastically ill-matched lovers and Allen grants them numerous hysterical scenes where they fail to communicate or connect, he insults her parents, or she takes the side of her obnoxious pedantic friend against him. Allen has never lost the ability to write great gags but such consistent excellence scene after scene has eluded him for years.
Then there’s the central hook – living in roaring Twenties Paris with America’s Lost Generation writers. You don’t need to have read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast or know anything about the tortured lives of the Fitzgeralds to respond with delirious happiness and recognition to Allen’s inspired recreation of them. A terse yet wise Hemingway who speaks in blunt short sentences or delivers paragraph long monologues in an abrupt monotone, a Zelda talented and charming yet also clearly troubled, an F Scott who talks like his own characters and is obviously deeply in love but also deeply torn, just feel right – and how perfect that these great writers actually do talk about writing while they get drunk nightly, and that Hemingway keeps steadily producing work for Gertrude Stein to critique for him.
But the hook is only part of the success. There is a sweetness to the movie’s romances and a maturity to its pronouncements on Golden Age thinking that are completely unexpected. Numerous critics have complained that in recent works (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Melinda & Melinda) Allen has constructed a fictive universe so exclusively preoccupied with sexual faithlessness and infidelity that it is not only impossible to care for the characters but that the whole filmic experience is also quite depressing. By contrast you feel certain Wilson’s Gil will be faithful when he finally meets his soul mate at the film’s close, just as you applaud his decision to follow Stein’s advice to write about hope instead of despair, and live that ethos in the now too.
Midnight in Paris is probably Allen’s best film since 1993’s Manhattan Murder Mystery, but just how he rediscovered his talent so spectacularly at age 76 will remain as joyfully insoluble a mystery as how Owen Wilson time-travels.