As a European filmmaker, Woody Allen has worked in England, Spain and now France, where his new movie, "Midnight in Paris," serves as a love letter to that city. Next up on his cinematic map will be Rome.
Allen is a long way from the overly familiar sidewalk cafes of New York, which helps explain why his career has experienced some much-needed rejuvenation.
Although his characters and thematic obsessions haven't changed all that much, the change in photogenic backdrop has been a decided plus. It also helps that the 75-year-old director no longer feels the need to cast himself as the nerdy intellectual wooing (and usually winning) a much younger woman. That got to be kind of creepy during his middle period.
The Allen surrogate in "Midnight in Paris" is a successful Hollywood screenwriter, Gil, who feels that the commercial pictures he turns out are a betrayal of the creative talent that he should be putting into a stalled novel.
Just as he pines to be a true artist, this 21st-century man also longs to live in what he supposes to be a more golden age for artists. That's why a trip to Paris prompts Gil to muse about what it must have been like to live there in the 1920s.
This is a vintage Woody Allen character, but the movie, fortunately, has a very different sort of actor in the role. Although Owen Wilson might not seem like ideal casting as a disaffected intellectual, his agreeably lazy screen persona works to advantage here.
Wilson makes Gil a good-natured guy whose easy life includes his impending marriage to the good-looking and socially well-placed Inez (Rachel McAdams). Allen also allows us to sense that Gil's superficial success barely masks a longing to do more with his life.
Much as in "The Purple Rose of Cairo," Allen's magic realism-imbued premise involves a considerable suspension of disbelief. Allen shrewdly does not offer any metaphysically strained explanations in "Midnight in Paris." Instead, Gil simply goes for a solitary walk late one night in Paris and accepts a ride from the retro fashion-clad occupants of an antique car. He and the movie are off for a ride through 1920's-era Paris — just like that.
Gil is dazed and confused when he's introduced to the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali, Cole Porter, Luis Bunuel, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and Pablo Picasso. It's to the credit of Allen's script that Gil and the audience settle into this culturally ripe environment pretty quickly. This is the Paris where Gil assumes he can come into his own as a writer.
"Midnight in Paris" then alternates between Gil's succession of nocturnal car rides into the '20s with his daytime routine in contemporary Paris, where Inez and her visiting parents start to wonder why he regularly disappears as midnight approaches.
The movie gets a good bit of comic mileage out of its philosophical observations about life-then vs. life-now. There aren't many truly inspired jokes, but there's a lot to make you smile along the way.
Literary types and movie buffs will appreciate the humorous gags about actual historical figures. The impersonations include such uncanny portrayals as Kathy Bates asGertrude Stein.
If the '20s sequences start to lose their magic after a while, it's partly because so much of the humor is on the name-dropping level. It's amusing to encounter so many famous names as living persons, but the celebrity sightings inevitably become the new norm.
If the contemporary scenes also become less involving, it's partly because the movie's heart obviously is in the earlier decade. Also making for dull domestic scenes in the present is that Rachel McAdams gives such a shrill, one-note performance as Gil's fiancee.
Keeping the movie afloat, however, are Allen's nostalgia-fueled premise, the snappy comic pacing, Owen Wilson's appealing central performance, and the gorgeous cinematography by Darius Khondji. Gil may debate whether to opt for Paris in the 1920s or 2011, but the Eiffel Tower looks great at any hour. Grade: B+
"Midnight in Paris" (PG-13) is now playing at area theaters.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times