Watching a Woody Allen movie these days is like waiting for the other shoe to drop: When is the film going to stop being great and suddenly go bad? By the end of "Midnight in Paris," which opened the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday, it was clear that Allen had made one of his best, probably without giving it too much thought. He wrote it lean.
Perhaps one of the reasons it works as well as it does has to do with the absence of the older man/younger woman paradigm that seems to have seized so much of Allen’s work of late. He's taking a break from that, having this film be about a dissatisfied writer (Owen Wilson) and his unsatisfying marriage without the need to inject it with the obsessive Woody Allen clichés we’ve seen so often.
"Midnight in Paris" is about living in the past as much as it is about how much Woody Allen loves Paris. (He pays it his highest compliment by making it look like New York.) The film seems to be asking its own writer and director whether it would be better to travel back in time to find an era greater than our own, or whether that quest is futile because no generation ever believes theirs is as memorable as it turns out to be, looking back.
Helping him answer that question are legends from Paris in the 1920s — Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso — and a mysterious beauty who beds famous artists. Allen pays homage to the literary giants, at once celebrating their uniqueness as people and balancing that with the exceptional work they produced; the message is that these people might have been great writers, but they were just as messed up as the rest of us.
While many of the jokes and broad character strokes are right out of the Woody playbook — a pedantic professor (played by Michael Sheen in a thankless role); the bitchy, controlling wife (Rachel McAdams) — they are more than matched by original, vibrant characters, like Gertrude Stein brought to life by Kathy Bates and Salvador Dali as embodied by Adrien Brody.
Corey Stall as Hemingway mostly steals the show. Every once in a while Allen will come upon an actor who really knows how to do his material and shines as a result of it. Stall is that character this year.
Wilson, who brings previously unseen dimensions to his charm, turns out to be one of the better choices to play the male lead in an Allen film. His combination of awkwardness and cool works in his favor; you really can almost imagine beautiful women falling in love with him.
It will be tempting to pronounce "Midnight in Paris" as a return to form for the director. This delightful valentine to the City of Lights is probably going to be one of the most enjoyable films screened here at Cannes (which might not be saying much considering the hard-hitting dramas to come). It plays more like an extended one-act gem or an early Woody Allen short story than a feature film. When he forces himself to be disciplined in his storytelling, adhering to a tighter plot centered around a few key figures, rather than falling back on his usual manner comedy with a host of characters, Allen is surprisingly in his element.
The film is as romantic as Paris itself. How do you visit that city and not fall in love with it? Or with the first person you meet there, for that matter. In capturing what he thinks is so great about the place, Woody has dug deeply into our romantic sensibilities. He seems to be wanting us to press ourselves passionately against the past, while bravely facing the uncertainty of the future.
Sasha Stone from Awards Daily is contributing Cannes Film Festival coverage for TheWrap. More of her Cannes coverage can be found at AwardsDaily.com.