Midnight in Paris opens Friday in select theaters (see times below)

Our rating:

The subject of Midnight in Paris is the appeal of a romanticized past and the attendant nostalgia for something that never existed.

Despite its feathery texture and thin characterizations, Woody Allen’s new comedy touches on difficult paradoxes of being in love with history and our tendency to project fantasies onto the present.

Owen Wilson plays Gil Pender, a successful screenwriter visiting Paris with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams, who joins the league of women given unrewarding roles in Allen’s more recent comedies). A Hollywood gun for hire who’d rather live in Paris than Malibu, Gil’s having trouble finishing his first novel. One night when Gil goes for a solo walk to escape an insufferable old friend of Inez, he’s picked up by an old-timey Peugeot and taken to a party where Cole Porter is playing the piano and where he meets Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston), who introduce him to the others in their Lost Generation set. After discovering this passageway to the past, Gil spends more and more time there, which threatens his rather crummy relationship with Inez. His grip on reality further loosens as he courts the smoky-eyed man-eater Adriana (Marion Cotillard).

This is Allen’s favored Groucho Marx joke writ large: Gil not only refuses to belong to any club that would have him as a member, he neglects the present in order to live in the past. To deny the present is, by extension, to deny ourselves and our own existence. Or, as Ernest Becker would be sure to point out, it’s a way to deny our own mortality. Becker won the Pulitzer in 1974 for The Denial of Death, a book that caused Allen to reshoot the end of Sleeper in order to give lip service to Becker’s ideas about our need to create distractions from the inevitably of our own demise and the feelings of futility and meaningless that it may cause.

The silly time-traveling conceit of Midnight is precarious, especially because Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds come across as cartoon versions of themselves. But there’s a single close-up (Allen is still a master of the perfectly timed, jarringly symmetrical close-up) in which the terrain of Wilson’s unruly face shifts in a way that says his character is going to buy this Parisian fantasy all the way. Gil chooses to believe (and Wilson sells it) that he hasn’t stepped into a prank, an elaborate costume party or a delusion. He’s literally stepped into the 1920s, and, why, he’s going to ask Hemingway (Corey Stoll) to give him notes on his novel.

Stoll (Law & Order: Los Angeles) plays Hemingway not as a simple caricature but as a caricature of a caricature. As he skips saying hello and immediately starts talking about grace in death (a funny nod to the Beckerian ideas in the movie), he’s funny as hell, and then it becomes clear: This Hemingway, these Fitzgeralds, this Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) are not the real things but Gil’s loving but unimaginative projections of them. Gil has told Inez that he’s afraid he has no real talent as a writer, and we see from Gil’s versions of the famed expat community that his writing is probably thin.

But Gil’s lack of strong intellect is probably a major reason Allen seems to have hope for him; Allen has often saidin different ways and to varying degreesthat the more you know, the more miserable you’re bound to be. Wilson’s sunny performance and Allen’s admiration for Gil’s sunny naïveté give the movie heart.

Allen bookends Midnight with statements about the necessity of joining clubs that will have us as members, beginning with a montage of contemporary Paris in calm golden hues. His romantic vision is not only unabashedly touristy but intrepidly contemporary. He doesn’t shy away from chintzy signage or the ghastly abominations that are contemporary automobiles. In this opening scene he goes straight for Paris in the present, surely a careful decision for someone as fond of the past as Allen. And no, the montage does not look as good as it would if the images were older, or of older things, or in black and white. But Allen is shooting the present because it’s the only present we have, and he confronts it with his opening shots (before, if I remember correctly, he’s even finished with his trademark white-on-black opening credits, which usually precede any images). At the other end of the film, Gil decides to live in the here and now, even though it’s less romantic and not as beautiful as the past. He chooses a walk in the rain with a woman who sells Cole Porter records over partying with Porter himself. It’s a melancholy ending to a beautifully light, surprisingly touching movie about fantasy, acceptance and mortality.