Wilson’s Gil travels to Paris with his fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy). Eager to establish his own Parisian agenda, Gil wanders into the city one evening. Around midnight, he joins a group of revelers who ride by in a vintage yellow car.
Voila! Suddenly Gil finds himself in the company of such sanctified luminaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein and Cole Porter.
Gil’s time-travel life – romantic and fulfilling -- contrasts with his depleted life in the present. He’s engaged to a beautiful but superficial woman (McAdams’ Inez). He's also at odds with Inez's all-business father, and he's sick of his life as a “Hollywood hack.” Commercially successful but dissatisfied, Gil wants to write a novel.
Allen treats Paris with as much reverence as he has treated Manhattan, reveling in the city’s trademark sights. Like Gil, he seems to understand that to visit Paris is to experience both present and past, to view today's sights while absorbing the vibe left by the great minds that have inhabited this most infatuating of cities.
Allen’s treatment of Paris borders on the nostalgic, but he also questions Gil’s (and perhaps our) fantasies about the 1920s. Does anyone’s moment look as good as a brilliant moment in the past? And would that past – if we could live in it – really meet our expectations?
Like Sean Penn in Sweet and Lowdown, Wilson delivers Allen’s lines without being trapped in an Allen imitation. Wilson doesn’t really fit into the Allen mold, which may explain why he holds his own. Wilson’s mixture of naivete, inadvertent humor and gee-whiz romanticism serves the character he’s playing.
Midnight in Paris features a large cast. Standouts include Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein; Corey Stoll as Hemingway; and Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali. Marion Cotillard is stuck playing Picasso’s winsome muse, an irresistible woman who contrasts with Gil's shrill and insensitive fiancée and her all-business family.
Midnight in Paris survives on charm and clever moments, not the least of which involves Gil’s suggestion that the great Luis Bunuel (Adrien De Van) make a movie about upper-crust guests who are unable to leave a dinner party, a premise that – of course – describes Bunuel’s 1962 Exterminating Angel, a biting satire.
Allen isn’t a satirist. In Midnight in Paris, he’s a whimsical pessimist who ultimately instructs us in the art of acceptance: We must settle for what’s available in our own time. Allen also can’t end the movie without offering Gil a ray of hope in the presence of a potential new woman in his life, making for an ending that’s easier than we might expect from a movie built on admiration for artists who made a habit of not pulling their punches.