Woody Allen used to be known for making a lot of sharp and funny movies that entranced and delighted audiences, then he was known for getting off with and subsequently marrying his partner’s adopted daughter, and recently he’s been known for making a lot of weak and half-assed and not very funny movies that have left audiences wondering why they bothered turning up. I’m not really equipped to gauge whether the last part of that callously reductive career summary is fair comment as I tuned out somewhere around Small Time Crooks and have only caught a couple of entries from Allen’s 21st century output, both on the strength of a few “return to form” angled reviews, but both were pretty disappointing: Match Point rehashed themes from his earlier and far superior Crimes And Misdemeanors in between providing cameos for more or less every TV comedian in the UK, while Vicky Cristina Barcelona wasted some highly charismatic actors on a story that went nowhere.
Third time lucky. Allen’s latest release Midnight In Paris is as fluffy and insubstantial as a Christmas cracker joke written inside a meringue but it’s undeniably charming, and engaging, and here and there quite witty, and is the best thing I’ve seen by him since Sweet And Lowdown, with which it shares a period setting, for some of its scenes anyway. The set-up is simple: Owen Wilson plays Gil, a hopelessly romantic screenwriter who’s visiting Paris with his ill-matched fiancée and her materialistic parents. Friction between them causes him to end up wandering the streets by himself at midnight, at which point a vintage taxi appears and whisks him off to the past, where he meets and befriends many of his idols: Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and so on. Inevitably, he also encounters a beautiful girl (Adriana, played by Marion Cotillard) towards whom he feels a powerful attraction, and this starts to exacerbate the uncomfortable situation he finds himself in in the present.
Crucially, there’s no straining for significance here, or any pretence that the feeble storyline is there for any reason other than an excuse to show off some predictably lovely footage of the French capital and some very nicely rendered reconstructions of 1920s bars, restaurants, fairgrounds and living rooms. Every character is a caricature, Gil’s horrible potential in-laws no less so than Hemingway, who’s constantly delivering useless advice about how to be a true man, or Salvador Dali, who pops up to enable some not bad jokes about surrealism. Once you relax into it, it’s all really quite soothing. Wilson turns out to be a canny choice for the lead role, which would surely have gone to Allen himself had the film been made twenty or thirty years ago – he plays it light and wide-eyed, and very much in the style of the director, without coming off as a pale imitation. This is probably the most throwaway film I’ve seen this year, but it achieves what it sets out to do and entertains along the way so I’ll take it over The Tree Of Life for now.