A nebbishy screenwriter who longs to publish a novel, Gil (Owen Wilson) is tentatively working on a book set in a nostalgia shop — much to the open frustration of Inez (Rachel McAdams), his all-too-modern, rich-girl fiancée, who has a tendency to talk about him in catty, judgmental tones as if he's not in the room and who makes no bones about preferring Gil the casher of Hollywood paychecks to Gil the wannabe artist. The couple has accompanied her parents on a trip to Paris in advance of the wedding, and if Gil, who once gave up a chance to live there for real, had his way, they'd never leave. "I tell ya," he says to his future wife, "if I had just stayed here and written novels instead of getting into that whole grind of writing movie scripts..."
The latest in a long line of actors playing a "Woody Allen type" in a Woody Allen film, Wilson bends his own recognizably nasal Texan drawl into an exaggerated pattern of staccatos and glissandos that's obviously modeled on the writer/director's near-musical verbal cadences; the word lunatic, for instance, begins with a long, hard lew, modulated over three connecting notes. His performance — "Woody Allen" in quotes and beach-blond drag — adds an extra layer of distance to a script thick with allegory. A deceptively light time-travel romance, Midnight in Paris uses fairy-tale devices as a way to get to the filmmaker's familiar, real-life-sourced themes: desire as both magical salve and instigator of insanity, and the fear of death that makes us forget past miseries just long enough to pursue pleasures that'll almost surely end in pain.
One night, as Inez flirts with an obnoxiously pedantic American academic (Michael Sheen), Gil drunkenly wanders off alone. A car pulls up, the strangers inside offer him a ride, and the next thing we know, he is at a bizarre party full of flappers dancing to Cole Porter. When a vivacious young couple introduce themselves as Scott and Zelda, he comes to understand that he's been transported to Paris, circa the 1920s. Before the night is through, he begins a flirtation with Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a stunning serial muse, and forges a bond with Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), who offers to show Gil's novel-in-progress to his good friend and mentor, Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). Gil runs out to grab his manuscript — and promptly gets lost in the present day. But the next night, the clock strikes midnight, another mysterious car drives up, and Gil is once again transported to his personal nostalgic paradise.
Allen only lightly milks the sci-fi potential of his premise, barely probing into the wonky details of how Gil's presence in the past could alter the space-time continuum (the one time his reticence feels like a missed opportunity: when Gil gives Zelda Fitzgerald a Valium and she subsequently disappears from the film). The high concept is a means, not an end: Allen sends Gil traveling through time not because he's terribly interested in the mechanics and fantastic possibilities of inter-dimensional travel, but because it's a backdoor way to investigate the problem of time — our inability to slow it or stop it, to make anything good last or prevent inevitable misery — within ordinary life.
Shot by Darius Khondji (who collaborated with Allen on the much-maligned Anything Else), Midnight is a striking study in aesthetic contrasts. The present day is white, fluorescent, blindingly bright — the atmospheric equivalent of a hangover. The past is permanently pre-last-call, and every room pulses softly with smoky, amber light. No wonder Gil, drunk on the rush of being able to control his transport through time (and often just drunk), gets cocky and attempts to close the gap between past and present, for the first time in his life going after what he really thinks will make him happy.
But ephemerality proves to be a curse in every epoch. Allen — whose contemporary output is often unfairly dismissed as trifling, even though his films of the '00s have been shot through with an intense, cumulative despair as often as they've been shot thanks to the miracles of foreign financing and tax credits — gives the episodic ebb-and-flow of satisfaction an unexpectedly upbeat spin. Or does he? Midnight concludes with a rushed coupling that could be read as falsely optimistic. Or maybe it's just the beginning of another crest of hope and momentary joy, doomed to dissipate immediately after the end credits — or, more likely, in the next film.