Midnight in Paris Dir. Woody Allen

[Sony Pictures Classics; 2011]

Styles: comedy
Others: The Dreamers, Travesties

Young upstart A. Stewart Konigsberg’s Midnight in Paris suffers from all the typical failures we’ve come to expect from green-behind-the-ears directors. A total collapse of awareness — of himself, of his audience — leads to a film devoid of both subtlety and reach, a solipsism that fails to be even slightly engrossing because it’s been swallowed whole by naivety.

Owen Wilson does the best he can as protagonist Gil Pender, trying to play an adult that happens to be consumed by the vagaries of a freshman lit student. In Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents, the scriptwriter and aspiring novelist holds forth on the charms of the city: its literary history, its bohemian aesthetic, its artistic spoils. But ultimately Pender, like the rest of Konigsberg’s characters, is simply a caricature, a cluster of simple ideas unable to shut up for any length of time. The film almost seems like it would’ve been better served if Konigsberg himself had hopped in front of the camera and embodied his own thesis. A personal appeal might have made the film’s effect overall less queasy and maladroit.

Attached to a woman who’s never allowed to be more than a shrieking harpy, Pender spends his days in Paris feeling inept and belittled, as his fiancée’s old friend Paul (a devilishly good Michael Sheen) guides the couple through the city, overcome with his own intellect. By night, Pender visits the age he yearns for — 1920s Paris, lousy with iconic writers and artists — and interacts with everyone from Hemingway to Dalí before realizing that rosy nostalgia for bygone ages is inherently self-deceptive. It’s a pat, easy thesis, and Konigsberg has the character deliver it aloud about 12 times during the film’s conclusion.

The performances throughout the film are solid; they make you wish these actors had more to work with. Piles of text have been written about all the figures that get dragged into this film, from Buñuel to Eliot to Gertrude Stein, but the characters never get to say much beyond what you’d find in the first line of their Wikipedia entries. Hemingway talks about shooting lions and boxing, Zelda Fitzgerald is drunk throughout; Adrien Brody makes Dali interesting only by repeating the word ‘rhinoceros.’ The film brims with talent, but for the most part it’s a series of wasted opportunities. There’s elegant camerawork trained on spots like the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, and a vivid soundtrack heavy with Cole Porter. Unfortunately, by focusing on the icons of Paris, the film has no choice but to crowd itself with banality and cliché. The location and the characters in the film feel almost as though they’re being treated as abstractions; emotion is exchanged for weak ideology, a romanticism that feels inhuman.

The film does show some promise. On either side of his pronouncements, Konigsberg fits in plenty of laughs. He has a gift for wit, and the film isn’t short on bursts of clever dialogue; if he’d spent less time trying to make a vacuous point and more time on, say, characterization, this could’ve been a decent comedy. But in the end, the film feels only like a hollow opportunity to dredge up a few syllabus favorites and have them sooth the lazy doubts that surround youthful ambition. It’s an onanism one hopes would get beaten out with experience — this isn’t a medium that could reward masturbation for an entire career without a director developing some nuance — but for now, all that’s here is a film overstuffed with dimensionless characters and trite conclusions, an amateur exercise in self-obsession.

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