Returning from a trip to Paris sometime in the mid-20th century, a federal judge named Frank A. Picard told a friend named Charley Manes, "It was a wonderful trip. Paris is a grand place. But I wish I had made the trip 20 years ago."
"You mean, when Paris was Paris?" Manes asked.
"No," Picard replied, perhaps wistfully. "I mean when Picard was Picard."
When Paris was Paris. When Picard was Picard. Ah, the old days. It seems the present is always overshadowed by a remembrance of lost or faded glory, some golden age before which present realities are poor and unsatisfactory substitutes.
Woody Allen fans know it well. Sure, they'll admit, Allen cranks out a lot of unmemorable and even poor work nowadays—ah, but they remember when Allen was Allen. Every once in a while, perhaps, he comes out with a film that shows them he remembers, too.
Midnight in Paris is such a film. It's a nostalgic movie about nostalgia—nostalgia for when Paris was Paris, for one thing. Even if you've never been to the City of Light, even if phrases like "the Lost Generation" and "la Belle Époque" hold for you none of the magic they do for Allen, the film makes you feel their power for his onscreen alter ego, appealingly played by Owen Wilson. For that matter, even if you aren't an Allen fan—even if you aren't convinced Allen was ever Allen&mdashMidnight in Paris could almost make you nostalgic for the Allen that fans remember, or seem to.
Which Allen, though? There are almost as many Woody Allens as there are Allen films, but Midnight in Paris is a frothy, whimsical confection that harks back to fantasies like The Purple Rose of Cairo and Zelig—but in a sunnier, more relaxed mode, as if even Allen's bleak anxieties soften when night falls on the City of Light. The universe may be a cold, violent, meaningless place, Gil Pender (Wilson) muses—and yet there is Paris.
Credit the star, in part, whose distinctly non-East Coast persona caused Allen to rethink and rewrite his main character after Wilson was cast. As Gil, a Hollywood screenwriting hack (by his own admission) yearning to write a serious novel, Wilson is still recognizably "the Woody Allen character," like many Allen protagonists before him, but with his laid-back charm and unaffected enthusiasm he's a more likable than usual version, with fewer anxieties and more naiveté.
Gil, visiting Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her chilly, well-to-do parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy), is overwhelmed with the romance of the city (beautifully photographed by Darius Khondji) that he feels and they don't. "To know that Paris exists and anyone would choose to live anywhere else is a mystery to me," he muses, but even living in Paris wouldn't be enough for him. "I was born at the wrong time, into the wrong era," he complains. For him, "when Paris was Paris" means the days of expatriate writers and artists like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald; of Cole Porter and Josephine Baker; of Picasso, Dalí and Buñuel.