Woody Allen is one of the few and fortunate directors who has unfettered freedom to write and direct his own films, be always funded and distributed by a major studio, and have the pick of the litter in terms of casting. This is regardless of whether or not his films are profitable, but I imagine he is expected to at least please the critics from time to time. I suspect Allen doesn’t really care if mainstream audiences like his films or not. They’re not made for us. They instead seem to serve as a therapeutic method of exploring Allen’s questions and issues in life. Although he no longer stars in his own films, Allen doesn’t exist apart from his films. His movies are his reality and, conversely, his movies function as a window into his life (i.e. HUSBANDS AND WIVES best illustrates this notion because in that film, Woody Allen’s character is having an affair with a much younger student, which mirrored Allen’s real life affair with his adopted daughter around the same time). Consequently, there is an autobiographical element to all of his films and so if you happen to be a fan of Woody Allen’s movies, watching them is akin to getting together with an old friend and listening to what he’s been up to lately.

Since moving to Europe, Allen has set his films there and MIDNIGHT IN PARIS continues that chapter. Owen Wilson plays Gil Pender, the Woody Allen character. Gil is a Hollywood screenwriter who is engaged to Inez (Rachel McAdams), a girl who comes from very well-to-do Republican parents. Owen is unhappy with what he describes as being a Hollywood hack screenwriter. His dream is to finish his novel and become a “real” writer. He and Inez are visiting Paris along with Inez’s parents and Gil has absolutely fallen in love with the city. To him, the city is the perfect place for a writer like him to thrive in. However, Inez does not share that point of view and regards Gil’s romantic notions of the city as crazy. One night while strolling through the streets of Paris, Gil encounters an old car from the 1920’s that stops to pick him up. He gets in and to his shock, he finds himself face to face with F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and his wife Zelda. Gil very soon discovers that he has traveled back in time to 1920’s Paris and, in addition to the Fitzgeralds, he meets other notable artists and writers as well.

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is Woody Allen’s intellectual time travel movie. Its not a technical or scientific look at time travel (for that, check out a fantastic low-budget time travel film called PRIMER), but rather a whimsical, fantasy take on the idea of time travel. Here, time travel really just serves as a platform for Woody Allen’s character study and exploration of his themes. So if you watch it, don’t bother trying to pick apart the science because its clearly not that kind of movie.

Whether or not you like MIDNIGHT IN PARIS will not only depend on whether you like Woody Allen’s films generally, but it will also depend on whether you like Owen Wilson’s character (and perhaps Owen Wilson himself for that matter). I for one immediately connected with Gil Pender. Although he hates being one, he is a screenwriter, a profession that has always interested me. Gil is also nostalgic and, I suspect, a luddite. He longs for the past, 1920’s Paris in particular, where artists, writers, and other intellectuals regularly hobnobbed and discussed their works through the late hours of the night. If you ask just about anyone, they will always refer to a past time period as the one they wish they were born in. It also goes without saying that Gil Pender is really Woody Allen in dress, mannerisms, and personality (opinionated, antisocial, outsider, and liberal). In addition, mixed into the character is the usual exuberant and slightly naïve attitude that Owen Wilson likes to imbue his characters with. In fact, I would say this is among the best versions of Owen Wilson’s usual performances. Wilson is perfect for the Gil Pender character, especially when Pender travels back in time and he marvels with child-like wonder at the fact that he’s meeting all of these literary and artistic giants.

As likeable as Gil Pender is, Inez, his fiancée, is the complete opposite. From the very first scene they are together, its difficult to see how Gil and Inez could possibly be together or what even attracted them to each other in the first place. Inez is an impatient, materialistic, narcissistic woman who thinks she is an intellectual in order to fit within certain crowds, but she really is not. In fact, I found the incompatibility between Gil and Inez to be a weakness in the script because you cannot see any commonalities between the two characters and its implausible they would have ever hooked up. Woody Allen has dealt with couples who have split up over irreconcilable differences in a much more complex and realistic fashion in the past. ANNIE HALL is a good example where you can both see how and why Annie Hall and Alvy were initially drawn to each other and why they eventually broke up. Here, you only see why the characters should split up, but not how or why they ever got together.

One of the most interesting characters in MIDNIGHT IN PARIS and one who I wish got more screen time is Michael Sheen, who plays Paul Bates, an arrogant know-it-all intellectual art critic, author, and a jack of all trades. From the very first moment you meet him, you wish nothing but ill will towards the character. Its obvious Gil cannot compete with this man, but you admire Gil’s fruitless attempts to one-up Paul. Worse for Gil, Inez seems smitten with Paul and she’s barely aware of Gil’s existence whenever she is around Paul. However, as unlikeable as he is, Paul’s insufferable personality makes you want to see more of him and I wish there was more of him in the movie. There is a great scene that takes place in an art museum where Paul is showing off his vast knowledge of art history. Attempting to upstage him, Gil offers his critique of a Picasso painting that he just saw when he time traveled and hung out with Picasso himself.

As for the literary and artistic characters Gil meets during his time travel adventures, I appreciated the fact that Woody Allen refrains from holding his audience’s hand to explain who each famous character is. Some of the characters Gil meets are not even explicitly identified by name, but their identities are implied from what they are doing in the scene or through a passing mention by another character. With that said, if you have no idea who any of these famous people are, you will not fully enjoy MIDNIGHT IN PARIS anywhere as much as if you did know the characters. By the way, for you comic book movie fans, you may or may not recognize the actor playing F. Scott Fitzgerald. I certainly did not and I only found out later on when I looked him on Wikipedia that I discovered the character is played by Tom Hiddleston, who plays Loki in THOR and THE AVENGERS. Ironically, as interesting of a premise it is for Gil to visit these famous characters in the past, the film’s more interesting moments are those that take place in the present where Gil has to deal with his bitchy fiancée, her more bitchy parents, and the snobbery of Paul Bates. The famous characters of the past come off as stereotypical representations of what we have read these people to be like and so we like these scenes simply because they contain people like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrud Stein. Furthermore, the nostalgic portrayal of Paris in the 1920s adds further appeal to these scenes. However, the film’s complexity and weight really lies in the present and Gil’s problems with the people around him.

Among the Paris 1920’s cast of characters, the main one is Adriana, played by Marion Cotillard. She does a fine job playing Pablo Picasso’s mistress and, eventually, Gil Pender’s lover, but her performance is by no means a stretch from what she has done in her previous efforts. Despite Cotillard’s performance, I could not emotionally invest myself into her relationship with Gil. Adriana is an underdeveloped and shallow character. We are briefly told that she is studying fashion and she expresses her interest in living in a past period, during Paris’ Belle Epoque period in the 1890s. Otherwise, she spends most of the film acting coquettish and hanging out at parties. Another reason why I couldn’t buy into this relationship was that Gil only likes Adriana because she’s 1.) beautiful and 2.) she likes his book, which Inez does not. Gil likes receiving this attention that he does not get from his fiancée. That is a poor basis for a relationship and its not one that anyone can really emotionally get attached to seeing develop.

To me, the most striking aspect of MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is its astounding cinematography by Iranian-French DP Darius Khondji. What kills me is that the film is by far one of the top 3 best looking films of 2011 and it was not even nominated for an Academy Award. The opening sequence of the film is a gorgeous travelogue of Paris that will undoubtedly make you want to book a flight to Paris right now. It’s a nice classic way to establish the whimsical, magical, and romantic mood and style of the film. Even if you have no interest in Woody Allen’s films, if you have an inkling of an interest in beautiful imagery, then you will do yourself a great disservice if you do not see this movie. By the way, for those of you familiar with Paris, are all the light bulbs in the city lit with warm/soft lightbulbs?

The film’s other strengths lie in the themes and contrasts Woody Allen establishes in the narrative. The first is the contrast between the nostalgic, exciting, and enlightening past versus the shallow, reserved, and sterile atmosphere of the present. Similarly, art is presented as being something fluid and alive in the past whereas in the present, it is dead and lifeless as it is only seen in museums and galleries to be clinically evaluated by non-artists. Woody Allen also presents us with an idea that is painfully too true. By the end of the film, Gil Penders realizes a bit to his dismay that whatever time period you live in, you will always long for a time period that has already past. You will never be satisfied by the time period you inhabit and so you must reconcile yourself with the present and accept the choices you make in it.

Overall, I enjoyed MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. However, I find it difficult to justify its Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Either the Academy voters decided to reward a filmmaker they know and like very well or the competition was extremely poor in quality. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is a light, frothy comedy that I can imagine copies of the DVD being sold at a Starbucks alongside CDs of Norah Jones. The film lacks the philosophical weightiness of CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS or the complex relationships developed in ANNIE HALL. Finally, Woody Allen gives us a Paris from an American tourist’s point of view. We see Paris as every outsider sees it. In contrast, Woody Allen is at his finest when he’s back in New York City, his hometown. Allen’s NY films provide far greater insight into his characters and his stories are more organic because Allen is operating in familiar territory and he isn’t just giving us a surface knowledge of New York. He’s giving us the insider’s tour. I miss that Woody Allen.