I finally saw Midnight in Paris this weekend, which I liked much less than I had hoped, if not expected, to. The movie, about a dissatisfied screenwriter who would rather be a novelist and begins to time travel back to Paris in the ’20s while in the city with his awful fiancee and her even more awful parents, is essentially an adaptation of two Allen short stories: “The Kugelmass Episode,” in which a bored New Yorker pays a magician to send him into a novel so he can cheat on his wife with Emma Bovary, and “A Twenties Memory,” a rather more cutting story about what it would be like to hang out with Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway in Paris.
There are two basic problems with the movie. The first is the idea that Owen Wilson, who was much better playing a pretender to literary genius in The Royal Tenenbaums than he is here, playing the real thing, could plausibly have written a novel that would knock Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway on their collective keisters. It’s a real waste to have Kathy Bates play Gertrude Stein and then have her be nice. (Some of the other collected impersonations, among them Alison Pill as Zelda Fitzgerald and Corey Stoll as Hemingway are quite good, but it’s a schtick rather than an actual period piece, cheap laughs rather than profound ones).
But even more annoying is the fact that Wilson and Rachel McAdams’ characters are just never a plausible couple, and the way Allen signals that McAdams and her parents are Bad, Terrible People is to reach back to 2003 and to pretend they’re Republicans who still hate the French over the war in Iraq. Her father, John, is a man who would have insisted on ordering Freedom Fries in 2003, but because he’s in the wrong socio-economic class, spends a lot of time saying things like “I will always take a California wine [over a French one] but the Napa Valley’s 6,000 miles away,” or complaining that “I didn’t like his remark about Tea Party Republicans…They are decent people trying to rescue the country, not cryptofascists.” This, despite the fact that Wilson’s character does things like gratuitously insult his future father-in-law’s politics over dinner. And when Wilson’s character steals a pair of McAdams’ character’s earrings, hoping to give them to the woman in ’20s Paris he intends to sleep with, he gets caught, but tries to make sure she doesn’t blame the theft on their maid, only to have McAdams respond, “You always take the side of the help. That’s why Daddy says you’re a Communist!”
I say this not to defend Republicans, but to note that this idea of Republicans is the smuggest, most self-satisfied liberal conception possible. And that, as much as Allen’s recycling of his own material, that shows the filmmaker’s age. Nothing about Midnight in Paris is illuminating or morally searching in the way either Match Point or Vicky Cristina Barcelona were. It’s an old filmmaker relaxing into ideas and biases that feel comfortable for him, and apparently for a lot of other moviegoers.