Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Paris Isn’t Burning

Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s latest film, has received some of the best reviews this talented comedian and filmmaker has received in years.  It is indeed funny, but I believe its great critical reception simply results from its … not being all that bad.

Allen has made some wonderful, affecting films, among them Manhattan (1979), Annie Hall (1977), Stardust Memories (1980) and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989.  But in recent years, Allen has been guilty of some truly wretched films, including Celebrity (1998), Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001) and Small Time Crooks (2000).
My personal favorites, though, has always been Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and Radio Days (1987).  These, along with Bullets Over Broadway (1994) explore Allen’s love for mid-20th Century Americana, an era where pop and fine art overlapped in a strange and wonderful alchemy.  Allen’s love-affair with the American Century was not uncomplicated; his valentines often suffered a little arrhythmia.  But the affection was undeniable. 
Allen returns to this era with Midnight in Paris, though this time focusing on a European locale.  Midnight chronicles the plight of screenwriter Owen Wilson, engaged to a shrill, upper-class vulgarian and dreaming during their Paris trip of the palmy 1920s of Hemmingway, Stein, Dali and the Fitzgeralds.
One night, after his fiancée heads out with friends, Wilson is picked up in a vintage cab ant taken to a party hosted by F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, with Cole Porter playing piano in the background.  Later in the evening he meets Hemmingway and has the opportunity to have Gertrude Stein review his novel.
This is a delicious premise, and eventually Wilson meets everyone who was anyone in The Movable Feast, including Dali, Josephine Baker, T. S. Eliot, and Picasso.  So why is the resulting film so … lifeless?
Part of the problem must rest with Wilson.  An engaging and appealing performer, Wilson is the quintessential second banana and cannot carry a picture on his own.  (He also stumbled through the film looking in desperate need of a shower, shave and fresh clothes.)  The film is not helped by the fact that all of the guest-starring luminaries simply cross the stage, perform as expected, and then vanish.  Zelda is beautiful and unbalanced, check; Hemmingway a tedious jerk, check; Dali self-obsessed and rather ridiculous, check; Stein an earth mother, check, check, check…
But the key fault with the film is that the tone is curiously wistful for a comedy.  Wilson ultimately learns that there is no such thing as a Golden Age, or, rather, every age is a Golden Age.  He says it, at least, and shambles sleepily into a happy ending, but one wonders... is there no such thing as a Golden Age?  Is there no such thing as cultural loss?
I’m not sure that Allen, as screenwriter or director, really wants us to examine that question too closely.  Wasn’t Paris in the 20s something of a Golden Age?  Certainly it was compared to Paris under Vichy.  (Or Moscow under Stalin, for that matter.)  And hasn’t New York lost something of its glamour, for example, the silver-plated age of jazz clubs, speakeasies and a vital, interesting arts scene?
Of course, it would be professional suicide for a filmmaker say that the age in which his audience lives is rather drab and uninteresting, vulgar and silly compared to earlier eras.  But one cannot help thinking that Allen feels exactly that way, and the happy ending Wilson finds in Paris 2011 is a compromise at best.
Midnight in Paris is not an objectionable film.  Like most of Allen’s work, it is personal, idiosyncratic and intimate.  We would be diminished as a culture without him, though not all o f his films can be terrific.  You won’t dislike Midnight, but you will leave thinking about where to go for dinner.

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