"I think that I was born too late," says the hero of Woody Allen's new film, a line that might apply to his creator.
At times, Allen seems stuck in an earlier era, like a phonograph needle skipping on one of his beloved Dixieland albums. He stubbornly crafts films out of archaic ingredients like Plot, Pacing, Dialogue and Characterization, even though 21st-century moviemaking has evolved beyond those Etruscan elements.
His latest, the swell soirée "Midnight in Paris," has it both ways, re-creating the period-piece charms of "Bullets Over Broadway" and "The Purple Rose of Cairo" while spoofing his own infatuation with a world gone by.
Owen Wilson plays Gil, a successful screenwriter with an anachronistic urge to write a novel. Gil is visiting Paris with his high-maintenance fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her crass, wealthy parents. While Inez can't wait to get back to Malibu, Gil wanders the picturesque side streets, imagining himself in the Paris of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and the titans of modern art.
One night as a bell tower tolls 12, a vintage limo pulls up and Gil is swept into a band of merrymakers dressed for a flapper costume ball. When they arrive at their destination, Gil realizes the partygoers aren't impersonating his artistic idols, they're the real thing. Wilson's expression as understanding dawns is like a kid's face as the lights come up at a circus.
Gil returns to the present invigorated, and to Inez's puzzlement -- and her parents' suspicion -- begins taking long rambles every night. Soon he's revising his manuscript with recommendations from literary lions. Travel broadens the mind, time travel especially.
The ensemble playing historical characters is sublime. Tom Hiddleston (Loki in "Thor") makes a fine Scott Fitzgerald, eager to be liked, nervous and utterly besotted by his tempestuous Zelda (Alison Pill of "Scott Pilgrim"). Corey Stoll ("Law & Order: Los Angeles") is a terse Ernest Hemingway, speaking that trademark brand of macho haiku. Wild-eyed Adrien Brody nails the inspired lunacy of Salvador Dali. And as Adriana, Picasso's mistress (and Braque's, and Modigliani's -- the girl gets around), Marion Cotillard is allure incarnate.
Gil is a tough character to play, a starstruck Everyman tossed into a heaving sea of geniuses. Wilson does wonders with this reactive role. From his wistful disenchantment with McAdams, to his underplayed crush on Cotillard, to the way he feeds the ball to his co-stars so they can score, this is Wilson's finest performance since "The Royal Tenenbaums."
Allen's script gives Wilson great gags that double as bittersweet character notes. When Gil calms overstressed Zelda with a Valium, he explains "it's the pill of the future." Trying to re-enter the 1920s club after the golden hour has passed, he finds it turned into a coin laundry, which says everything about his view of the present. When he pitches surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel a plot about aristocrats trapped at a dinner party they can't escape (the setup for Buñuel's "The Exterminating Angel") it's a commentary on Gil's posh inertia.
Allen forces Gil to confront his illusions about a golden age better than his own. His Jazz Age dream girl pines for the Paris of gaslights, can-can dancers and Toulouse-Lautrec. It takes one night in 1890 for Gil to see that while nostalgia isn't what it used to be (and it never was), it's never too late for a happy ending.
"Midnight in Paris" makes you yearn for the time when brainy larks weren't a once-a-year occasion. Why, back in the '70s. ...