Tag Archives: Woody Allen

Kristen Stewart in Cafe Society / Mercury in Retrograde in the Chicago Trib



I wrote the following appreciation of Kristen Stewart’s performance in Cafe Society for Time Out Chicago. It should appear on their website later today:

Kristen Stewart elevates Woody Allen’s Café Society

Like many latter-day Woody Allen films, Café Society is a mixed bag. Genuine hilarity coexists with jokes that fall flat, scripted dialogue alternates between the reasonably naturalistic and the tone deaf, and acting is all over the map. The film’s saving grace is a lead performance by Kristen Stewart, so winning in its “casual complexity and low-key intensity” (to borrow the subtitle of a recent Stewart profile in Film Comment by Northwestern professor Nick Davis) that it single-handedly elevates Café Society to the status of essential viewing for the summer movie-going season.

While Stewart’s unique brand of underplaying sparked criticisms that she was “wooden” and “unconvincing” in the Twilight saga and other early films, what seemed like weaknesses became strengths as soon as the young actress began working with significant directors. Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria is an obvious turning point: as a sexually ambiguous personal assistant, Stewart not only held her own but excelled in lengthy dramatic scenes opposite the great Juliette Binoche, and she picked up prestigious Cesar and New York Film Critics Circle awards for her efforts.

In Café Society, as a down-to-earth receptionist caught in a love triangle with a powerful Hollywood agent (Steve Carrell) and his enterprising nephew (Jesse Eisenberg), Stewart seizes the chance to show off new colors in her palette. She proves adept at both screwball-style comedy (note the Irene Dunn-like way she throws a pregnant pause into the line “You have a deer-in-the-headlights…quality”) and poignant drama – when the receptionist becomes the wife of a big shot, she also becomes a walking symbol of human regret. The character’s wardrobe may improve but watch Stewart’s eyes: beneath a lovely shade of copper eye shadow, she’s palpably dreaming of what might have been.

Café Society opens Friday, July 22, at Landmark’s Century Centre and AMC River East 21.


My next film, Mercury in Retrograde, is the subject of a story by Nina Metz in today’s Chicago Tribune.


2013 European Union Film Festival Preview

The European Union Film Festival has returned to the Gene Siskel Film Center for its 16th edition, again providing Chicago movie lovers the chance to see local theatrical premieres of a plethora of recent films from nearly all countries belonging to the EU. This unique festival should not be taken for granted: while some of the more high-profile movies being featured may return to Chicago-area screens (and eventually come to home video) in the future, many other worthy titles will not. One of the very best films I saw anywhere last year, José María de Orbe’s Aita, only screened locally at the EU Film Fest (and in glorious 35mm, no less), but still hasn’t yet found a U.S. distributor. The 2013 festival kicked off last Friday night and runs through March 28. Any of my students who attend any of the EU Film Fest screenings will earn extra credit points towards their final grade. Please see the extra credit page of your course website for more details. The full lineup (along with ticket info and showtimes) can be found here:


Below are my picks for five of the festival’s best bets:

Dormant Beauty (Bellocchio, Italy, 2012)
Grade: A / 9.0


Italy’s greatest living director, Marco Bellocchio (Fists in the Pocket, Vincere), returns with another controversial film inspired by a true story, this time concerning Eluana Englaro, a comatose woman who died in 2009 after being taken off life support by her father. Rather than dramatize the story of the principles involved in the real-life case, however, Bellocchio instead made the fascinating decision to tell three separate but subtly intertwined fictional stories (as well as a fourth parallel story featuring the mighty Isabelle Huppert as the mother of another comatose woman), all of which play out against the backdrop of public demonstrations – both for and against “mercy killing” – engendered by the case. This is a remarkably intelligent and complex movie that raises a host of Italian-centric issues about politics and religion, and the roles played by each in both public and private life. And, as a statement about the difficult relationship between love and euthanasia, this easily trumps Michael Haneke’s Amour, avoiding that film’s stern moralizing and shameless manipulation tactics and replacing them with true compassion, maturity and even-handedness instead. Dormant Beauty screens on Friday, March 22 and Sunday, March 24.

The Last Time I Saw Macao (Guerra da Mata/Rodrigues, Portugal, 2012)
Grade: B+ / 7.9


I don’t know what they’re putting in the water in Portugal to breed such great filmmakers there but this fascinating narrative/travelogue hybrid is further proof that contemporary Portuguese cinema is among the most exciting on the planet. “Guerra da Mata,” a character presumably played by the co-director of the same name, is a Portuguese man who travels to Macao when an old friend, a transvestite/prostitute named Candy, requests help after falling into trouble with some underworld figures. Upon arrival, he is unable to locate her and ends up wandering around and ruminating, in an extensive voice-over narration, about Macao as an “ex-colony of Portugal that never was” – a place where ancient Buddhist traditions absurdly co-exist with hyper-capitalism. Complementing Guerra da Mata’s freewheeling, Chris Marker-esque narration are fragmented compositions that capture the neon lights and reflective surfaces of Macao at night in a manner as assured as what Roger Deakins did with Shanghai in Skyfall, only the end result is even more impressive; writers/directors Jean Pedro Rodrigues and Joao Rui Guerra da Mata are genuine artists working with limited resources to craft a work of stirring cinematic poetry as opposed to an ace cinematographer ably fulfilling a big commercial assignment. The Last Time I Saw Macao screens on Friday, March 8 and Saturday, March 9.

Hannah Arendt (Von Trotta, Germany, 2012)
Grade: B+ / 7.6


Margarethe Von Trotta is the most prominent female director associated with the German New Wave of the 1970s and, like compatriot Rainer Werner Fassbinder, is known for exploring notions of German nationality and identity (albeit in a less overtly provocative way). This made her well-qualified to helm a biopic of Hannah Arendt, the German/Jewish philosopher who covered the Nazi war crimes trial of Adolph Eichmann for the New Yorker and coined the useful phrase “the banality of evil.” The film mostly focuses on how Arendt’s perspective on Eichmann – that he was not a monster but a mediocre bureaucrat thoughtlessly following orders – caused a firestorm of controversy in academic and intellectual circles as well as in the international Jewish community. As in Jan Troell’s The Last Sentence, Von Trotta offers an un-sexy/non-Hollywood view of history, centered on a journalist, in which the moral quandaries at the heart of her screenplay take precedence over showy performances and ostentatious period detail. But don’t let the modest surface fool you: this was expertly shot by Caroline Champetier (Holy Motors), and Barbara Sukowa’s quietly commanding performance in the title role slowly builds in intensity until a corker of a climax where Arendt defends herself in a passionate university-hall lecture. Sukowa, a legendary actress discovered by Fassbinder, will be present for the sole screening on Friday, March 8.

Paris-Manhattan (Lellouche, France, 2012)
Grade: B- / 6.8


Alice Ovitz (Alice Taglioni) is an attractive but perpetually single young pharmacist who has been obsessed with Woody Allen since she was a kid. In much the same way that Woody sought advice from Humphrey Bogart in Play It Again, Sam, so too does Alice commune with the Woodman by talking to a poster of him in her bedroom. (Through clever sound editing, he actually replies to her via audio excerpts from his films.) The plot of this movie has something to do with Alice being torn between two different men but, even as far romantic comedy plots go, the outcome is entirely predictable from the outset. Nonetheless, this whimsical concoction from first-time writer/director Sophie Lellouche is charming and fun, thanks in large part to an appealing cast. You can bump my rating up by half a letter grade if you consider yourself a big Allen fan; the whole film is basically a feature-length homage to him, and the man himself turns up for a memorable cameo at the end. Paris-Manhattan screens on Sunday, March 10 and Thursday, March 14.

Tabu (Gomes, Portugal, 2012)
Grade: A+ / 9.6


I already reviewed Miguel Gomes’ masterpiece in January prior to its local premiere at Northwestern University’s BLOCK cinema. You can read my long review here:


Tabu screens on Wednesday, March 6.

Odds and Ends

Some random thoughts on the three different movies I’ve seen in the past three days at the same Evanston multiplex.

Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, USA, 2012) – Theatrical viewing / Rating: 7.9

Although I still haven’t caught up with The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom is easily my favorite Wes Anderson movie since Rushmore. While Anderson’s singular gifts as both writer and director are undeniable, there is something about the progression of his career, a tendency towards increasingly arch stylization, that has rubbed me the wrong way. Candy-box color cinematography and ostentatious set design may have always been important ingredients in the Anderson universe but it’s been a while since his impeccable sense of style has been balanced by anything as emotionally raw as Olivia Williams asking “How would you put it to your friends? Do you want to finger me?” Instead, we’ve gotten an overuse of Bill Murray at his smuggest, a grating sense of whimsy, a distasteful sense of class privilege, an egregious showing off of a bitchin’ record collection, and an approach to both composition and the direction of actors that occasionally resembles those science fair exhibits where butterflies are pinned to a styrofoam board. While Moonrise Kingdom doesn’t correct all of these problems for this Anderson agnostic, I’m happy to report that it does have a genuinely poetic feeling for the emotions of childhood, including an appealingly pervasive and piercing sense of melancholy that lurks just beneath the picture postcard exteriors. And while I could’ve done without some of the film’s more over the top elements (the flood, the lightning strike, the threat of lobotomy, etc.) there’s no denying that the lead child actors are amazing and that their odyssey at its most stirring takes on some of the hypnotic quality of The Night of the Hunter. Also admirable is how Anderson has created a scenario where his too-hip, classic rock “deep cuts” would finally sound appropriate, and yet he goes and loads up the soundtrack with Benjamin Britten and Hank Williams Sr. instead.

The Searchers (John Ford, USA, 1956) – Theatrical viewing

Hmmmm. The Searchers or Madagascar 3? Decisions, decisions!

Teaching John Wayne is a funny thing. Two days ago I took a class to see a one day only screening of a new digital restoration of The Searchers at the Century 12 theatre in Evanston, easily the single best viewing of the movie I’ve ever had. While discussing it with my students afterwards, I was reminded yet again how, in spite of the fact that it is considered by cinephiles to be the quintessential Wayne performance, the quintessential John Ford film, the quintessential western, it just doesn’t play as well to the uninitiated. It is indeed the Wayne-starring movie that has consistently ranked the lowest when I ask my students to rate the films we’ve watched in class at the end of each semester on a scale from 1 – 10. (The Searchers is currently rated 6.8 on my “student tomato-meter,” followed by, in ascending order, Stagecoach with a 7.2, Fort Apache with a 7.5, Rio Bravo with an 8.0 and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with an 8.3)

What I’ve come to realize from this is that everyone who’s never seen a John Wayne performance has preconceptions about who Wayne is. The Duke vehicles that play the best are therefore the ones that run counter to their expectations. Students expect Wayne to be a stern, moralistic, patriarchal authority figure – someone who is essentially like their fathers or grandfathers, but probably more of an asshole. When they encounter the Wayne of Liberty Valance or Rio Bravo, what they find is someone graceful, super-relaxed and easily likable (Manny Farber’s great line about Wayne’s “hipster sense of how to sit in a chair” is apropos here). This of course is the true Wayne persona, the way he comes across in most films. When my students see The Searchers, which ironically is a very different type of performance for Wayne, it somehow conforms more closely to their negative preconceptions; they are offended by the racist, borderline-crazy Ethan Edwards, with his barely concealed rage towards Native Americans, because they cannot imagine a difference between Wayne and Edwards, nor, for that matter, between John Ford and Edwards. The idea that Ford is viewing Edwards from a critical distance, that the character is meant to be something other than a pure “hero” is difficult for many first time viewers to fathom.

Nonetheless, I relished this particular screening, which made visible many details that had always previously eluded me (even after dozens of viewings that include watching the superb Warner Bros. blu-ray on my 42 inch home television screen), such as the initials “C.S.A.” on Ethan’s belt buckle. That Ethan would be wearing this article of clothing, advertising the “Confederate States of America” three years after the Civil War ended, is a fascinating detail that speaks volumes about his character.

To Rome with Love (Woody Allen, USA/Italy, 2012) – Theatrical viewing / Rating: 7.2

Woody Allen follows up the great Midnight in Paris with another winning, though lighter and frothier, tourist’s-eye-view-of-Europe concoction. The omnibus nature of this Roman holiday deliberately recalls the European anthology films that were popular in American arthouses during Allen’s formative years (including such quintessentially Italian movies as Vittorio de Sica’s Gold of Naples). And while the format is somewhat limiting when combined with Allen’s inherent weaknesses as a writer/director (some of the one-dimensional characterizations found in Paris that seemed excusable by that film’s deft sense of expedient storytelling are actually harder to take in the more bite-sized episodes on display here), Rome‘s frequently hilarious one-liners and general sense of good-spirited fun make this nothing less than a nice, refreshing summer entertainment. The best of the four stories, by far, involves Alec Baldwin as an architect who revisits, Ebenezer Scrooge-style, his younger self in the person of Jesse Eisenberg. Among the rest of the cast, Roberto Benigni is, as usual, about as welcome as a fart in church, which is fortunately more than compensated for by Penelope Cruz as a voluptuous hooker in a skin-tight red dress. Watching the Spanish Cruz playing a hot-blooded Italian is not only delightful but also fitting: no contemporary Italian actresses come as close as she does to inheriting the throne of Sophia Loren.

A Serious Talk About American Comedy

Katherine Stuart, one of the brightest of my former students from the College of Lake County, recently asked to interview me for an argumentative research paper she is currently writing in an English class. The topic of the paper is why classic comedy films are better than the comedy films of today. With her permission, I am reprinting the wide-ranging interview in its entirety below.

KS: You used Bringing Up Baby in your class. What characteristics do you think this film has that make it a classic?

MGS: The screenplay by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde (who incidentally fell in love while writing it) is very clever and contains a lot of witty banter within a very solid narrative structure, the direction by Howard Hawks is flawless and, most importantly, the chemistry between the two leads (Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant) is palpable and irresistible. I always describe the mixture of their distinctive speaking voices as sounding like a beautiful musical duet. Furthermore, there’s a “wildness” to the film, an element of chaos represented by the leopard, that I think is crucial for a screwball comedy to be effective. The leopard is associated with Hepburn’s independence and untamed sexuality, which is presented in stark contrast to Grant’s frigid fiancé (“no domestic entanglements of any kind”). Plus, it’s just so damn fun watching this woman turn this man’s life upside down.

KS: What do you think are some of the best qualities of classic comedy films?

MGS: For the most part, it’s the screenplays. Look at the scripts for Some Like It Hot or The Apartment: they are completely sound according to the rules of narrative logic and the characters are three-dimensional and highly memorable. Billy Wilder could have made those films as dramas and they might have been just as effective but he chose to make them as comedies instead. Or consider any of Preston Sturges’ films. Those movies are just incredible pieces of satirical writing. It’s what I think Mark Twain would’ve done had he been born in the 20th century and decided to become a filmmaker. Nobody even tries to write comedy like that anymore. Or if they do, their screenplays certainly aren’t being produced.

KS: Why do you like Howard Hawks as a classic screwball comedy director?

MGS: Hawks’ style is completely unobtrusive. It’s invisible. You’re never aware of where he’s putting the camera, when he’s moving the camera, when he’s cutting, etc. and that’s because he’s always making the right choices. He was the consummate professional Hollywood director. The first close-up in Bringing Up Baby doesn’t even occur until 17 minutes into the movie! It’s a close-up of Katherine Hepburn’s face expressing disappointment after she finds out Cary Grant is engaged. She doesn’t say a word and yet it’s an unbelievably effective moment. Hollywood comedies nowadays are slathered with close-ups from beginning to end and there’s no thought behind any of it. It’s just to try and make a movie star’s face fill up the screen.

KS: Do you think that classic comedy films are better than comedy films today and why?

MGS: It seems inarguable to me that the best comedies from Hollywood’s golden age are superior to the comedy films of today. The problem with today’s comedies is that the majority of them are nothing but a long string of jokes from beginning to end. The approach of most of these filmmakers is to throw everything they can think of at the screen and see what sticks. The end result is that even a relatively funny movie is going to have a lot of unfunny moments. (I do love the original Airplane! but I hate most of what it has spawned.) Also, the tone of today’s comedies is almost always uneven. In a movie like Superbad, there are some moments where the dialogue and performances are surprisingly naturalistic but then the next minute something completely absurd and cartoonish is happening. The problem is that the filmmakers can’t get from point A to point B smoothly. The tonal shifts are completely jarring.

KS: Who are some of your favorite classic comedy directors?

MGS: From the silent era, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin were geniuses. Their humor is entirely visual and is therefore universal and timeless. Their best movies are just as funny today as they ever were. The reaction of students in my Intro to Film classes (the majority of whom have never seen a silent movie) is proof of that. In the sound era, Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges are my favorites. Sturges was the best comedy writer who also knew, as a director, how to get the best out of his actors. Everything William Demarest says in a Sturges movie sounds hilarious. Lubitsch’s movies are just so elegant and so damn effortless. In addition to being very funny, they are actually beautiful. No one tries to make comedy beautiful today. Also, the early Marx brothers’ movies at Paramount are among the funniest – and most insane – movies ever made, especially Duck Soup, which was directed by the great Leo McCarey.

KS: What are some of the characteristics of comedy films today?

MGS: Most comedies today fall into one of two subgenres: the gross-out comedy, which is aimed at male viewers and the romantic comedy, which is aimed at female viewers. The gross-out comedy is a more explicit, contemporary version of the “teen sex comedy” that was popular in the 1980s. It is characterized by humor involving bodily functions and fluids and was first popularized by There’s Something About Mary and American Pie in the late Nineties. The less said about contemporary romantic comedy, the better.

KS: Who are some of your favorite directors of comedy films today?

MGS: I think Woody Allen is still the best comedy director working in America today. His output might be hit or miss but I thought Midnight in Paris was a terrific movie. The premise of it was so clever and the tone of it so refreshingly sweet. I’m not surprised that it’s his highest grossing movie. Richard Linklater is a great writer and director of comedy. I especially like Dazed and Confused, Before Sunset and School of Rock. I like Harold Ramis a lot. Groundhog Day is probably my favorite Hollywood comedy to be released in my lifetime. The Coen Brothers do comedy well even when they’re not making official comedies. I like the Farrelly brothers’ early movies. And I like a bunch of random comedies that you might say succeed in spite of who directed them – like Office Space and Borat.

KS: Are there any modern screwball comedy films that you think are not as good as classic screwball comedy films? What characteristics do you think it lacks?

MGS: I would say that almost all contemporary films that try for a screwball tone end up not measuring up to the classic screwball comedies of the Thirties and Forties. Most of the contemporary examples (e.g., Runaway Bride, Along Came Polly) are too tame, cutesy and formulaic. They lack the anarchistic spirit of the originals. Also important is that a lot of the original screwballs were about class difference and therefore contain a certain amount of social criticism as subtext. Contemporary Hollywood isn’t interested in doing that. The Coen brothers probably do screwball the best and yet, interestingly, the times when they’ve tried to work purely in that mode (The Hudsucker Proxy, Intolerable Cruelty) resulted in what are probably their least successful films. They’re better at marrying aspects of screwball to other genres. Also in that vein, The Social Network, which is of course a great drama, does contain a surprising screwball vein in Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue and in the delivery of the performers.

KS: As the expert, what do you think I should know that I did not ask you?

MGS: A couple of things: I do think comedy is alive and well in America, just not in the movies. Nowadays, most people get their comedy from sketch comedy shows, stand-up comedy, Comedy Central or even YouTube. None of those things existed during Hollywood’s studio system era. One could argue that there’s less of a need to laugh at the movies today because we’re surrounded by comedy everywhere else we go. Also, I’m not a reactionary; I don’t think that movies in general are any worse than they’ve ever been. But almost all of my favorite American films of the 21st century are dramas (Zodiac, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Mulholland Drive, Letters from Iwo Jima, A History of Violence, There Will Be Blood, The Hurt Locker, etc.) It seems that if you’re a serious, intelligent, artistically ambitious filmmaker in America today, comedy isn’t a genre that you’re going to try to get into. Therefore, as a filmmaker, I am naturally pursuing comedy.

Now Playing: The Tree of Life and Midnight in Paris

The Tree of Life
dir. Terrence Malick, 2011, USA

Rating: 6.9

Midnight in Paris
dir. Woody Allen, 2011, USA/France

Rating: 8.5

The bottom line: Movies about guys walking with their hands in their pockets!

Terrence Malick and Woody Allen are both directors who came of age in the 1970s, concurrently with but quite apart from Hollywood’s beloved Film School Generation (Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Scorsese, De Palma, et al). Unlike their more commercially-minded countrymen, neither Allen nor Malick studied film production at a four-year university, both distinguished themselves by writing their own scripts and both showed a greater adherence to classical notions of “high art” in terms of both the great cinema of the past and, more importantly, the other arts – literature in Allen’s case, philosophy and painting in Malick’s. (Also, neither Malick nor Allen sported beards!) In the ensuing decades the two have come to represent polar opposite approaches to how an artistically ambitious American filmmaker can live and work; Malick’s output has been legendarily sparse (only five released movies in as many decades) where Allen’s annual releases (now totaling forty-one) have become as dependable as the turning of the earth. This has led to a problematic categorization of Allen as a businesslike journeyman, a talented comic writer but sloppy visual stylist who is indifferent to actors, someone who works compulsively to stave off a fear of death. By contrast, Malick’s advocates view him as the contemporary cinema’s great Romantic artist, a consummate perfectionist in the technical sense who is nonetheless open to improvisational whims, someone who only works when and if the inspiration strikes.

The sad reality is that since the release of Days of Heaven in 1978, Malick’s work has become increasingly bloated and pretentious, a state of affairs that hits a remarkable, dizzying, frustrating new high with The Tree of Life. Although Malick’s films have always featured de-centered narratives in favor of rapturous imagery, the balance here has shifted beyond all reason; Malick and his great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have captured some of the most magisterial images in contemporary movies (a volcano erupts, CGI dinosaurs wander a primordial landscape, a child chases soap bubbles on a well-manicured lawn) but, after an amazing first hour, the disappointing sense begins to settle in that they will fail to acquire the cumulative power necessary for the kind of transcendental payoff one is expecting. The narrative fragments (a grown man roams the modern world musing on his childhood in rural Texas as well as the creation of the universe) obstinately refuse to become anything more than broken shards and are held together only by the glue of Malick’s copious voice over narration, which by now is approaching self-parody in its new-agey pseudo-profundity: “There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.”

This brings us to the movie’s real problem: even more so than The New World, there is an abiding sense of looseness and wastefulness about The Tree of Life. It feels like a film made by a man with an unlimited amount of freedom, as if Malick had all the time, money and resources in the world to shoot all the footage he wanted and then spent years massaging that mountain of footage into its final shape. The best comparison I can make is with Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, another loose, baggy monster created by a secretive, reclusive genius that dazzled in its early stages before painfully spiraling into seemingly endless tedium. And while Malick’s supporters are quick to point out that “loose” working methods have always been his modus operandi, that all of his movies are about poetic feeling more than intellectual understanding and yadda, yadda, yadda, the sense of rigor that characterized Badlands and Days of Heaven is long gone. The idea that Malick will ever again make a film as tight, compressed or short as those earlier hour and a half long masterpieces seems increasingly unlikely, even as Malick’s rate of production dramatically increases (he already has one new movie in the can and has reportedly begun work on at least one after that).

I don’t know or care whether The Tree of Life is an “autobiographical” film as some of its most passionate defenders are claiming, which to them I suppose makes it inherently brave. I do admire it for individual moments of beauty, Brad Pitt’s scary performance as the tough love father and Malick’s overall ambition and foolhardiness, qualities in short supply in today’s Hollywood. But I didn’t feel a sense of cosmic wonder while watching it, the interconnectedness of “all things” that seems Malick’s overarching goal, one that he appears to be laboring awfully hard to achieve. For a more effortlessly cosmic cinematic experience I think I’ll see again Pedro Costa’s lo-fi, black and white Change Nothing, a documentary about a singer that conjures up the wonders of creation without the digital dinosaurs.

Woody Allen has long had his pretentious side (the complaint that his Bergman influenced dramas were inferior to his “earlier, funnier work” became so ubiquitous that he actually worked it into Husbands and Wives in 1992) but his recent attempts to rebrand himself as a European filmmaker have actually produced some of the fleetest movies of his career; 2005’s London-set Match Point and 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona were simultaneously mature without being pretentious, succeeding as both penetrating character studies and nimble storytelling. If critics and fans (including me) have taken Allen’s best recent films for granted, it is likely because they’ve been sandwiched between lesser works that tend to make us judge Woody Allen not by his greatest hits but by his overall batting average. I suspect that will change with the release of Midnight in Paris, a delightful comic valentine to the film’s title city that ranks among the best and most imaginative movies Allen has ever made.

Like the short stories of Allen’s hero S.J. Perelman, the premise of Midnight is Paris is simple and irresistibly clever, and Allen executes the clean narrative arc to perfection: Gil (Owen Wilson) is a successful Hollywood screenwriter vacationing in Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents. The city’s romantic aura inspires him to contemplate moving there permanently and finally realize his ambition of becoming a serious novelist. These plans don’t square with the more pragmatic Inez who finds herself spending more and more time with a former college professor, an insufferable know-it-all (in a long line of similar Allen pedants) deliciously played by Michael Sheen. Gil meanwhile finds himself magically transported back to the Golden Age of Paris in the 1920s where he hobnobs with the world’s artistic élite and falls for Adrianna (a very lovely Marion Cotillard), a fashion designer and muse to Picasso and Hemingway. To give away more of the plot would be criminal but suffice to say that the film’s sweetness of tone is perfectly balanced by its cautionary notes about the dangers of idealizing the past. Crucially, one also feels that this latter aspect contains a healthy amount of self-criticism for its writer/director, something that can’t often be said of a Woody Allen film. Also important is that the film’s funniest and most entertaining conceits (like Adrien Brody’s inspired cameo as Salvador Dali) serve to effectively prevent it from becoming the academic exercise it might have in other hands.

The real masterstroke of Midnight in Paris though, and a risky one that could have backfired, is the casting of Owen Wilson as Gil. While it has become increasingly common for the now elderly Allen to cast younger actors to play the part of an “Allen surrogate” in the lead role, this has often been a problematic strategy; most of these actors (from John Cusack to Edward Norton to Kenneth Branagh) end up essentially imitating Allen’s familiar stammering-intellectual-nebbish speech patterns. Wilson, however, slows down Allen’s dialogue to fit his own laid-back Texas persona and the result is both hilarious and refreshing. He captures the typical Allen character’s excitability while softening the misanthropy. Check out Gil’s infectious enthusiasm in the short, wonderful scene where he talks to himself while lying in bed at night, amazed at his good fortune. In the end, it’s hard to say if Gil seems more romantic and naïve than the usual Allen protagonist because Allen wrote him that way or because Wilson’s line deliveries makes it feel that way. Regardless, Allen has allowed Wilson (an actor I have occasionally found grating in the past) to display his innate intelligence, sincerity and optimism in a role that he seems born to play. He is absolutely magical. So is the movie.

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