As regular visitors to the Comedy Palace may recall, back in 2009 I got a little too excited in my anticipation of Whatever Works. As I breathlessly reported then, that film seemed destined to be Woody Allen's great rebirth -- not just a return to form, but a return to comedy form, in what remains his only New York film since 2004's disappointing Melinda and Melinda. As it turned out, though, Whatever Works struck me as a mid-level entry. (My review is here.) Wanting Whatever Works to be a great comedy left me so spiritually exhausted that I waited a long time to catch up with his 2010 film, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger -- a tired misfire which made Whatever Works look fresh.
Woody's been making these movies for so long now that even the reviews are predictable. Every film gets a handful of notices which proclaim that the master is back on top, along with notices which lament his recent output and declare that he's lost his touch. I'm always on the fence. Yes, his films since 2000 do feel like lesser efforts. But they're still better than just about anything else you might see at the cineplex. Yes, Match Point was a pale imitation of Crimes and Misdemeanors. But I'd much rather see a pale imitation of Crimes and Misdemeanors than a pale imitation of a Transformers cartoon.
Anyway, his latest, Midnight in Paris, is wonderful, and it's the first Woody Allen outing in a long time that feels worthy of his best work. I'm not saying it's as good as Manhattan or Bullets Over Broadway (indeed, nothing is as good as Manhattan or Bullets Over Broadway), but it feels like a continuation of those masterpieces, not an imitation of them. It owes something to Allen's short story "A Twenties Memory," which in turn owed something to his standup comedy monologue "The Lost Generation." But the comic conceit -- a contemporary writer finds himself magically transported back to Paris in the 1920s -- is mined not only for laughs, but for a compelling truth about the nature of time, mortality, and nostalgia. Midnight in Paris has been compared to The Purple Rose of Cairo, because both deal with characters forced to choose between fantasy and reality. Both characters ultimately choose reality, despite the knowledge that reality will disappoint them (and eventually kill them). But Cecilia in Purple Rose was choosing between the real world and the fantasy world of movies, between fact and fiction. In Midnight and Paris, Gil Pender (beautifully played by Owen Wilson) has to choose between the past and the present, which is a conflict Allen has not previously explored in detail.
A lot of the fun of Midnight in Paris comes from Gil's interactions with a galaxy of Lost Generation icons, all perfectly written and cast. Never has Ernest Hemingway been so funny. To go into too much detail about who Gil meets after midnight would be to spoil some of Woody Allen's best jokes in years, so I won't do that. I'll just say that Gil's time travel, presented poetically and mysteriously with no tiresome sci-fi explanation, sets up some great comedy which could come from no one else's pen.
But there's more to it. Gil would rather live in (circa) 1926 than in 2010, but the people he meets in 1926 think the real Golden Age was the 1890s, and that 1926 is crass and pallid. A quick trip back to the 1890s introduces him to people who wish they'd lived during the Renaissance. This is the philosophical heart of the film, and it's a point that resonated with me. I'm always wishing I'd been around during the twenties, and I'm also aware that if I had been, I might have thought of the Marx Brothers the way I now think of Judd Apatow, and I might have believed that truly great comedy died with the burlesque clowns of the nineteenth century. I can't think of another work of art which addresses this specific complex directly, or another artist so well equipped to tackle it. This is why Midnight in Paris affected me personally, more than any Woody Allen film since -- gee, maybe Deconstructing Harry.
If the movie has a flaw, it's that the present day is drawn in such flat, broad strokes that you'd forgive Gil if he did choose to stay in the twenties. I think Woody was working with the knowledge that the really enjoyable parts of the film are Gil's trips back in time, so the 2010 sequences are sketched in quickly, just setting up what we need to know: Shallow fiancée, conservative parents, Hollywood hack who aspires to be a great writer. Great -- now let's get on with the fun. But you still come away with the feeling that the past really was better, and that Gil chooses his own time only because he somehow has to. That was enough in The Purple Rose of Cairo, because Cecilia was choosing grim reality over a fantasy that truly didn't exist.
But that's a minor squabble with a wonderful film, and it is a relief to know that we haven't seen the end of Woody's greatness. One troubling aspect of his European films has been a pervasive feeling of falseness. A mediocre Woody Allen movie set in New York and populated by New Yorkers still rings true, in a way that Cassandra's Dream and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger do not. Some of the European outings have been good films (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) or at least amusing diversions (Scoop), but they're contrived. He always has to make up reasons why Americans are abroad. The European locations feel arbitrary and inauthentic; these films would have been set in New York if Allen could have gotten the financing to make them here. But Midnight in Paris is really about Paris. It couldn't have been set in any other city, and the Paris it presents is a Woody Allen Paris, just as Manhattan presents a Woody Allen New York.
One of the pleasures of Woody's oeuvre is the frequency with which he turns these movies out. The letdown of a disappointing Woody Allen movie is eased by the knowledge that there will be another one soon. Conversely, the joy of a great Woody Allen movie is intensified by knowing there's more around the corner. And in this case, it sounds like a treat. Woody's 2012 film, reportedly entitled Bop Decameron, will be a series of "very broadly funny" comic vignettes, set in Rome, and loosely inspired by Boccaccio. Its typically stellar cast will include Allen master Judy Davis, the great Italian comedian Roberto Benigni, and, appearing on film for the first time since 2006 (Scoop) -- Mr. Woody Allen Himself.
Let's get our hopes up!