It opens like a French tourist board commercial. Incase you hadn't noticed, you're in Paris. The Louvre, Champs Elysees, some fleeting shots of cafes, bistros and boulevards all to a twenties score of charming violins, lazy saxophone and woody Mediterranean acoustics. Woody Allen really wants you to know you're in Paris and is using every bygone tool to make you feel it, despite the introduction of Michael Sheen, Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams, all distinctly unfrench. Americans abroad? Again? Where are Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem? This smacks of self-flagalleratory wish fulfilment, mostly condescending to his audience, albeit well realised and sweetly delivered.
Allen loves cities and he returns to them again and again. Often, it is New York, where he is most comfortable, but regardless he has a love affair with urban life, despite being openly threatened and confused by it. Here, he combines three of his greatest passions, the romantic antique Parisian cityscapes adorned with hues of gold and cobbles of stone infiltrated by aging wine, his passion for literary and art history, concentrating mostly on his pre-conceived notions of what his heroes would have been like had he been around to speak directly to them, and finally he returns to the problems of the heart, which every last film he directs, writes or produces insists on having a deep vein of passion through, even if it is often misguided and paraded with all the delicacy of a lump hammer.
Frustrated writer Gil (Owen Wilson) and Inez (Rachel McAdams) are in Paris on vacation, prior to their upcoming marriage joined by the in-laws intermittently in tow for parties, dinners and periods of incredulous disbelief at Gil's increasingly sporadic behaviour. Gil accidentally find himself alone on a balmy evening at midnight, walking the streets as the clocks chime the arrival of a new day. A vintage car pulls up and the occupants beckon him to join them. Woozy from the wine consumed earlier that evening , he amiably agrees, and finds himself in a different Paris, the Paris of his dreams, a golden era where he passes the time in conversation with his own idols. Fitzgerald, Picasso and Hemingway to name only three, while Cole Porter accompanies their banter on the piano. On successive nights he meets these artistic giants, and at Hemingway's advice, hands his recently completed novel to Gertrude Stein to give him feedback. Additionally, he meets one of Picasso's very fleeting muses, Adriana (Marion Cotillard) with whom he strikes up a special friendship.
This magic only appears to happen at the stroke of midnight (hence the title) and this means that Gil often finds himself in the most romantic city in the world, during what he believes is the golden age, imbibed with the grape and the attentions of a woman he is slowly falling in love with. It is no surprise that he is besotted with the city, as it provides him with everything he needs, everything that Inez is not. In fact, everything his real, waking life is not.
The story is, as usual, delicate and layered, with some very nice attention to detail. Some Allen fans will find this a little obvious and predictable, but Allen has taken on board the criticism levelled at him and, rightly or wrongly, taken another stab at Europe after the success of Vicky Cristina Barcelona. That was heralded as a return to form by myself and lots of others, a happy reminder of Allen in the seventies and eighties, when he was as bright as a button and his films were almost mandatory viewing. He would be the first to admit, that despite trying, he rarely hits that kind of form these days and it's definitely true that this is not up to those standards, or even those we witnessed in VCB.
Wilson is our Allen here, blunt, confused, honest with his feelings, to the point of offence, often lost both emotionally and physically out of sorts. You can almost see Allen at times, saying the words, as Wilson waves his arms around himself, gesticulating with passion. McAdams is a bit player in a film that doesn't really require her to be any more than present. Cotillard is charming, sweet and intriguing as Adriana and it would be easy to see why Gil found her so beguiling. Michael Sheen, Kathy Bates, Tom Hiddleston and Adrien Brody all enjoy small moments of splendour on screen, but they are bit players to a Paris after dark, for she is truly the star here.
Announced as a nominee for Best Picture at the Oscars, I find it a little too cliched for my tastes. What Allen did so well in VCB, combining great characters with beautiful locales and a simple but effective story is not woefully short here, but the characters are deficient and the story often fails to connect the viewer, even if the vistas of Paris after dark are beautiful and alluring.
It won't win Best Picture, that much I can guarantee, though you could spend ninety minutes doing many things more tedious than sitting down here with Woody.