In Woody Allen's new movie, the only woman over 20 who is neither a harpy nor a groupie is the very late Gertrude Stein. But here's the thing: Having suffered through at least two decades of the director's celluloid shrews and floozies, I got a big kick out of seeing an elderly lesbian literata play den mother to the film's inevitable kvetchy Allen stand-in. That, plus a certain amount of wacky time travel, makes Midnight in Paris a sweet and lively story, and a nicely packaged new outing from a past master who has done little more than repeat himself for at least two decades.
As he often has before, Allen sets his tale — a familiar one, about a creative type dissatisfied with his rather lucky life — against the backdrop of a European glamour spot. And, as ever, Paris appears to have been photographed by the director's travel agent: the Eiffel Tower, all lit and twinkly against the night sky; the Seine, ruffled by a mild summer breeze; the cute bistros, filled with stylishly gesticulating Gallic types. Book your flights now.
But lo! Isn't that Owen Wilson, blond and goyische to the gills, yet faithfully replicating the put-upon slump of the Allen shoulders, the quavering stammers about art vs. success, literature vs. Hollywood? And is that Rachel McAdams by his side, wasting her abundant talent as yet another incarnation of the philistine feminine — that ur-bitch who's been bent on dimming the creative light of almost every Woodman since, oh, Manhattan?
Wilson's Gil is a successful screenwriter moping over his stalled Great American Novel while noodling around Paris with his fiancee. The lady (McAdams' suitably brittle Inez) wants nothing more than to settle down with her beloved in Malibu and live off his residuals. Neither Inez nor her wealthy Ugly American parents (Mimi Kennedy and John Fuller) can comprehend Gil's fondness for the city where he lived before worldly success and disillusionment set in.
Enter a joke — a lone joke, but a pretty good one, executed by an excellent ensemble of actors. Restlessly roaming the city one evening, Gil finds himself transported on the stroke of midnight into 1920s Paris, where he tries to get his first draft read by the artists and writers who have influenced him most.
All of them, naturally, come in for some good-natured Catskills-style joshing: The Scott Fitzgeralds party compulsively while proclaiming their misery — Alison Pill makes a wonderfully histrionic Zelda — while Hemingway (Corey Stoll) picks fights and otherwise demonstrates alpha tendencies. Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody) witters on about rhinoceri, while in the movie's funniest scene a certain Mr. Bunuel (Adrien de Van) comes on mystified by Gil's eager interpretation of his most famous film.
Gil's liberating excursions into the past make for entertaining vaudeville. But everyone's a type, and the only people doing any real acting are Michael Sheen, quietly hilarious as a know-it-all professor who impresses the hell out of Inez, and the great Kathy Bates, enjoying herself as a cheerfully matter-of-fact Stein, who actually gives Gil feedback on his manuscript.
It goes without saying, though, that women Bates' age don't qualify as bona fide muses in a Woody Allen movie. Enter, vamping, a saucer-eyed Marion Cotillard as a Roaring '20s siren who is shacked up with Hemingway and assorted surrealist painters, but who, if she had her druthers, would rather play art groupie in the belle epoque.
You get the picture: No matter where or when we live, we all crave escape to our own private (if mythical) Golden Ages or places. Certainly Allen seems to: His Paris comes tarted up in rich browns and golds, and his interiors are the handsomely appointed suites of posh hotels.
Were he to move his camera a couple of miles — to, say, the projects crammed with unemployed immigrants, where a more fulfilling life might legitimately be imagined right here and now — then the existential question his films unfailingly pose as universal would come to look like the petty grievances of a neurotic bourgeoisie. But what does Gil care? He's in a Woody Allen film, and must be compensated for his longings with the firm flesh of a nymph barely out of her teens.