Woody Allen's wonderful new film Midnight in Paris might be his most purely pleasurable work in a decade, and audiences seem to agree... the film is on track to become The Woodman's biggest hit since his 1986 Oscar winning classic, Hannah and Her Sisters.
I'm a major Woody Allen fanatic, and as an enthusiast I'm not as prepared to declare it his best of the decade as many other critics seem eager to do (I think Vicky Cristina Barcelona is probably a bit richer and deeper in character and theme, and Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz are both amazeballs in it), but Midnight is an extremely satisfying return to light comedy, easily the funniest movie he's made since the 90's, with a loose and inventive feel, gorgeous photography from Darius Khondji, a wonderful supporting cast (which includes Adrien Brody, Kathy Bates, adorable muses Rachel McAdams and Marion Cotillard, and the human-genius Michael Sheen), a charmingly wide-eyed lead performance from Owen Wilson (fulfilling the mandatory "Woody Allen stand-in role" in such a uniquely Owen Wilson-ish way that it will remind you why that guy is such a uniquely lovable movie star), and best of all, many great gags that land fully and feel like throwbacks to Woody's early work in the 70's. All that, and the movie explores some interestingly philosophical ideas with the lightest of touches.
One of the miracles of marketing the film has been the fact that the trailers have not given away Midnight's main, lightly magical-realist conceit (one that recalls Woody's absolutely fantastic depression era fable, The Purple Rose of Cairo), and I don't want to be the one to ruin it for anyone who hasn't seen it yet. Suffice to say, Owen Wilson goes on a journey where he gets to indulge in a little bit romanticism for another era while eventually learning what a dangerous trap nostalgia can truly become.
Much as Wilson's restless hack screenwriter who dreams of becoming a greater artist spends his nights in the film wandering the streets of Paris and romanticizing a time when Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Picasso rubbed elbows in decadent salons, I've often indulged in similar flights of fancy in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
I've day-dreamed about coming to Hollywood during the movie industry's golden age and downing a few martinis with Orson Welles and Humphrey Bogart, or living in 70's LA, when intensely passionate artists with diverse voices like Scorsese, DePalma, Bogdonavitch, Malick, Coppola and Spielberg shook up the foundation of the medium with every new film.
More than once, I've fantasized about visiting the Las Vegas of The Rat Pack and Bugsy Segal, where one could indulge in truly Sinful decadence on a weekend that would truly stay in Vegas because that generation really knew what a guy's code actually meant. I've imagined seeing Sinatra take the stage at The Sands, riffing with his famous pals while starlets from LA sat in the front row, waiting for Frank to pick them for the night.
My thoughts have wandered to visions of a Hollywood Blvd before the ugly monstrosity of the Hollywood and Highland mall. I've looked up at the giant resorts in Sin City and in a weird reversal of Wilson's dilemma, imagined a Strip devoid Paris (albeit a very fake one). I've often mourned (and have written about) the loss of the older resorts that, to my mind, constitute a more "authentic" versions of Vegas.
But that's all silly-romanticism. If I was in the LA of Welles and Bogart, I would never actually be able to keep up with the pace that those guys drank. If I was in Bugsy and Frank's Vegas, I'd probably get my ass kicked by a quick to anger mob-enforcer who thought I was too much of a wise-ass. Plus, I wouldn't be able to Tweet, and where would that leave me?
The passage of time inevitably leads us to feel that past eras were better than our own; everyone with a brain believes thinks the present is filled with fools who lacked the spark, vision, and creativity of previous, already canonized generations. While it's hard for me to argue against the idea that most people my age are cynical yet un-engaged hipsters who are more focused on projecting cool personal brands than making a better world, everyone in every time with intelligence felt a similar disgust about their contemporaries. While I've often felt that my generation is addicted to nostalgia, Woody is suggesting that every generation has indulged in the same romantic looking back instead of forward (albeit without the aid of YouTube to help them easily access every episode of Gummi Bears and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). I think Midnight in Paris, beyond it's feather-weight watchability, terrific performances, and extremely funny and playful screenplay, is resonating with audiences because everyone can relate to Wilson's feelings that if only they'd been born in another time, people would truly understand them.
So I'll just have to walk the streets of Faux-Paris, enjoy today for the modern miracles we sometimes take for granted (like devices that can carry every song you've ever loved in your pocket, the ability to cross oceans in a matter of hours, and, yes, Twitter), while still maintaining my right to indulge in wistful longing to see what my favorite cities were like in eras that are not my own. And I can take extra comfort in the fact that one day, young Americans who will have been forced to survive the traumas of the inevitably approaching apocalypse will look back on 2011 and think that we all had it pretty damn good, what with our crazy recreations of Paris, our over-blown Hollywood malls and our almost total lack of flesh-craving bio-zombies.