Up for four Academy Awards on February 26 and Woody Allen's biggest box-office hit ever, Midnight in Paris seems likely to overtake even 1977's Annie Hall as the man's most beloved movie. And I wish I could belove it myself, honest I do. In this case, it's no fun to disparage the core audience's genuine pleasure.
It's not as if a marketing juggernaut turned the thing into a must-see. Nobody expected Allen's latest to do much business until old-fashioned word of mouth brought his longtime fans out of the woodwork while earning him more than a few new ones. Since I live for chances to fake being an endearing sort of fellow, it's just my lousy luck that I couldn't help abominating Midnight in Paris pretty much from lights down to closing credits.
Presumably, you all know the premise by now. On vacation in the City of Light with his snot of a fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and his gargoyle-Republican future in-laws, discontented screenwriter Owen Wilson finds a portal in time that lets him zip back every midnight to the Paris of the 1920s. There, he rubs elbows with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and a passel of other luminaries from 20th-century art's founding playpen. That gives him the courage to follow his bliss by saying toodle-oo to McAdams and Hollywood moola to turn novelist (with a compliant new girlfriend) at last.
Granted, it's probably been decades since the last time I looked forward to a Woody Allen film. Even so, I did expect him to cough up something a mite less flimsy than Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure for English majors. Featuring a couple of clueless high-school metalheads who go back in time to recruit the "real" Napoleon, Genghis Khan, Billy the Kid, Beethoven, Lincoln, and so on to avoid flunking history, Bill & Ted was the better—and certainly less cloying—movie of the two.
That's partly because the blast-from-the-past personages on hand in Bill & Ted didn't need to be more than one-note caricatures of their famous selves for the joke to work. Nor were the filmmakers stroking viewers' vanity about being in the know as to who these dead celebrities were. Besides catering to a somewhat more sophisticated crowd than the audience for stoner comedies, Midnight in Paris is supposed to be a love letter to a great period in literature and the arts. Yet Allen's depictions of its legendary figures stay on an even more clownish comic-book level, even as he flatters us for being able to tell our Picasso from a hole in the ground.
Not that I'm asking for piety, mind. Far from it. But considering the movie's presumption of chummy complicity with the boutique audience that's up to speed on this particular edition of Who's Who, irreverence more informed might have been nice. You have a hard time believing that Allen has read any of these authors' works or even boned up on their biographies; he's just regurgitating the glib impressions he must have formed about their reputations 50 years ago when he was teaching himself to sound like the collegiate version of Mad magazine. Are we really supposed to exit all aglow at how cultivated we are just because we recognize their damned names?
Apparently so, considering that Adrien Brody's cameo as Salvador Dali consists pretty much in its entirety of him saying "Dali." At least that's supposed to be funny, unlike Wilson being hailed one midnight from the mystery cab that takes him back in time by a beaming chap who introduces himself as Tom Eliot. "T.S. Eliot?" Wilson gasps, then hops in—and that's the last we see of the author of The Wasteland. Including him at all amounts to product placement for the cognoscenti, which isn't an unfair description of Allen's overall m.o. here.
Even as comic books go, Midnight in Paris is softheaded. What any dilettante knows about Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald is that he was a drunk who died young and she went crazy. But that's too downbeat for Allen's fairy tale, so their stand-ins—the gifted Tom Hiddleston, who at least looks right, and Alison Pill, who doesn't—are reduced to bubbly partygoers. And while the younger, ruder Allen might at least have treated us to a few irresistible dirty jokes about Gertrude Stein's lesbianism, the ultra-capable Kathy Bates often looks fairly stumped about how to sell her as a sort of Left Bank Cub Scout den mother. The next time Allen happens on sculptor Jo Davidson's great bust of Stein outside the New York Public Library, I hope he's got the grace to feel ashamed.
Considering his own history of borrowing greatness from his (cinematic) betters, it's also a little icky that Allen has both Stein and Hemingway give the Wilson character's novel their unlikely imprimatur. As Hemingway, Corey Stoll gives the movie's only genuine comic performance, as opposed to mannequin impersonation. He's really good, too. But the lazy, half-bright laughs that Stoll's Hemingway is designed to trigger set my teeth on edge.
No doubt, it's pedantry to object that the movie turns him into a raffish cooze hound when every reader of A Moveable Feast—not to mention Paula McLain's The Paris Wife—knows he was passionately devoted to the first Mrs. H. at the time. Or that Woody casually ships him off to hunt big game in Africa a decade before fame and the second Mrs. H. put him in a position to afford safaris. But the conflation of Hemingway the dedicated young artist with the macho blusterer of his later years gives away the opportunism under the movie's pretense of affection. More than any other single figure, at least to Americans, Hemingway crystallizes why "Paris in the Twenties" has become a legend. If he's a blowhard, then what, exactly, made the Wilson character romanticize the era in the first place?
The present-day scenes aren't any less cheap. I used to wonder whether trying political satire might stimulate Allen, but the terrible lines given Kurt Fuller as Wilson's right-wing potential father-in-law—being noisily pro-W. proves he's an asshat—have made me rethink that. As for McAdams, who may deserve better, she could have played her role mute so long as I'M A SELFISH BITCH WHO'S ALL ABOUT MONEY was spelled out on her forehead in neon, which it more or less is anyway. Michael Sheen does his best in a tired part as the intellectual poseur she's really hot for, but at times Allen's scorn of pseudo-intellectuals looks a lot like resentment of the real thing. To recycle a joke the real Hemingway made about John O'Hara, we could have spared ourselves all sorts of tsuris just by starting a fund to send Woody to Yale.
And yes, I know. A lot of people who loved Midnight in Paris would be the first to say it's a trifle, so what's the diff? None, really. But I haven't felt so estranged by someone else's interpretation of artists I cherish since Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces put me off the Sex Pistols for a good ten years. While Marcus overdid the significance of it all, Allen's best-kept secret may be that he's a philistine wrapped in art's clothing. When do I get to be Goldilocks?