It’s been at least 15 years since I saw a Woody Allen movie in the theater during its first run. For the life of me I can’t remember whether the last one I saw was Mighty Aphrodite (1995) or Bullets over Broadway (1994). For a while after I stopped seeing his movies at the theater I’d still see Woody Allen’s movies on video but finally, sometime in the late 1990s, I stopped seeing them altogether. It was either Deconstructing Harry (1997) or Celebrity (1998) that finally did me in. In the years since then I’ve managed to catch a few here and there, whenever someone would say, “No, no, this is one of the good ones,” and I’d try to give them a chance (Sweet and Lowdown was pretty good), but eventually sitting through the odd, airless, mannered little artifacts that Allen released every year just became too depressing. So sometime around Small Time Crooks (2000) I began the current era of actively avoiding all Woody Allen movies.
Which brings us to Woody Allen’s current film, Midnight in Paris, which we saw only because Tree of Life was sold out and I sure as shit was not going to sit through a documentary about the New York Times. Midnight in Paris is Allen’s latest return to form, and his highest grossing movie in years, possibly of all time by the end of its run. Critics have been kind for the most part, with a 93% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, where it’s been described as “charming and clever,” “enchanting,” and a “beautiful little jewel of a movie.”
It’s not any of these things. Midnight in Paris is a terrible, terrible movie, lazily written, flaccidly plotted, smug, misogynistic, and deeply cynical; middlebrow travel porn for the NPR tote set. Owen Wilson, who drew the short lot as this year’s sad Woody Allen surrogate, is likable enough as a writer struggling to finish a novel in Paris (huh? really?), but Allen’s script is downright hateful to his fiance, played by Rachel McAdams. She is forced to play the stereotype of the shrewish, castrating, spoiled, shiksa bitch that has become all too commonplace in Allen’s movies in the years since his ugly break with Mia Farrow. Her parents are even worse, a couple of rich, entitled vulgarians. Then there’s the awkwardly introduced rival played by Michael Sheen, who is forced to play another well known Woody Allen type, the stuffed shirt foil to our down-to-earth protagonist. Literally nothing that transpires in this “modern” part of the story is in the least believable, let alone engaging. None of which I would even mind if the movie was funny. But, oh god, the jokes are tired and the dialogue is baldly expository in a way that would make a screenwriting student blush. Every scene is stilted and lifeless. Oh, and Carla Bruni cannot act.
Okay, the movie is pretty, the costumes are gorgeous, and it’s fun (for a while) to try to guess which writer, musician, or artist from 1920s Paris will show up next (answer: all of them). And Adrien Brody delivers a much needed jolt of energy with his Salvador Dali. But you know what? That’s not enough. Not by half. Anyway, Woody Allen already shot his “Isn’t Paris beautiful” movie – 1996’s Everyone Says I Love You. And Alan Rudolph already did the Paris in the 1920s thing in the vastly superior The Moderns (1988), which is currently available on Netflix Instant.
It’s impossible to convey, to those who would say, “It’s just supposed to be a forgettable little movie,” how vital Woody Allen used to be. Back in the 1980s, his movies were a reason to skip school, to take off work, to get your ass right quick to the Cedar Lee. So much of the way I think and write and make jokes today derives directly from Bananas and Sleeper and Love and Death and Annie Hall and Manhattan and Zelig and Hannah and Her Sisters and Broadway Danny Rose. Those weren’t just movies; they were an entire worldview, one that was at once both ferociously intelligent and almost childishly playful, both deeply literary and steeped in goofy, glorious slapstick. Those movies were an entire education — they taught me how to think. Compared to them, Midnight in Paris is just another sad, dessicated little husk.