By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
At a time when wedding parties gone wild is the plot du jour in movie comedies, it's reassuring to know that Woody Allen's cerebral absurdity is still intact. It's not only there but thriving since he finally got out of the house, which in Allen's case is all of Manhattan.
Midnight in Paris is his latest excursion outside the Big Apple and the 75-year-old filmmaker's funniest movie in years. Or not, if you prefer Hangover-style shenanigans to witty repartee about Hemingway, Dalí and other thinkers who designed early 20th century pop culture. You can see why Midnight in Paris is a tough sell. It isn't big in scope or dirty in spirit, but it's constantly amusing, and that's all that matters.
Owen Wilson serves as Allen's alter ego this time, and he displays remarkable dexterity with the high-falutin' themes in play. He even sounds like Allen in flustered moments, in a role offering plenty. Wilson plays Gil, a Hollywood screenwriter disenchanted with that scene and falling in love with Paris, where he's vacationing with his self-serving fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her disapproving parents.
Gil is writing a novel, and there's no better place for inspiration than the City of Lights, where world-changing authors and artists migrated in the 1920s. Whenever possible, Gil sneaks away from Inez's obligations to stroll Parisian streets, soaking up centuries of atmosphere. Then the atmosphere supernaturally soaks him in.
During one walk, the clock strikes midnight and what seems to be an antique Peugeot pulls over, its carload of ritzy revelers beckoning Gil to join them. Except the car isn't an antique. Somehow Gil has been transported back to the 1920s, wandering puzzled through a party where F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald greet him, Cole Porter is playing piano and Ernest Hemingway (standout Corey Stoll) is defining macho.
Gil returns to the unexplained phenomenon each night, making Inez and her parents suspicious that he's cheating on her. He would, with the lovely bon vivant Adriana (Marion Cotillard) who is sleeping with, and posing for, Pablo Picasso. Allen drops a museum's worth of famous names to aid Gil including Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) and Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody, a hoot in his only scene). Getting the jokes means you're smarter than you may think you are.
Allen eventually gets to the heart of this matter: the allure and danger of nostalgia. Gil's obsession with the past prevents him from living a satisfying present, and that means trouble for the future. Combining such deep thoughts and loopy comedy is an Allen trait too long missing in his films. Midnight in Paris proves the Woodman still has it in him.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.