The opening montage of Woody Allen's wistful comedy reveals the director's new love affair. Not a word is spoken, but images of the object of desire cast a spell on you, just as they must have seduced the filmmaker best known for his long-term relationship with New York City.
Paris looks breathtakingly beautiful. The City of Light emerges as a main character, as alive and shimmering as a backlit Marlene Dietrich in a Josef von Sternberg film. Allen and lenser Darius Khondji ("In Dreams") have constructed the Paris of the imagination -- idealized and romanticized -- in an ode to imagination.
Meticulous craftsmanship might be expected of a writer-director who has made more than 40 features. The big surprise is Owen Wilson ("Little Fockers") as Gil Pender, an American in Paris beguiled by the notion that "every street, every boulevard is its own special art form." Bringing a laid-back West Coast sensibility to the archetypal Woody Allen protagonist, Wilson offers wide-eyed wonderment tinged with an underlying regret. A self-described Hollywood hack, Gil is a successful screenwriter who grinds out movie scripts but longs to write real literature.
He's lost. Whether strolling the streets of Paris alone or with his fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams of "Sherlock Holmes"); her insufferable parents (Mimi Kennedy and Kurt Fuller); or know-it-all former professor (Michael Sheen); Gil finds solace in dreaming of the past.
Allen's self-reflexive script cleverly develops parallel characters and story threads that illustrate the power and perils of nostalgia. As Inez tours and shops her time away, Gil wanders or works on his book, a novel revolving around the proprietor of a nostalgia shop. And then with a magical stroke reminiscent of "The Purple Rose of Cairo," the admirer of 1920s Paris becomes immersed in his favorite period.
An incredulous Gil interacts with expatriate icons of the Lost Generation and the artists who contributed to the legendary time and place: Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), Dali (Adrien Brody) and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). Marion Cotillard is luminous as Adriana, the former lover of Modigliani and Picasso, elevating the definition of art groupie to a whole new level, as Gil notes.
But the clever and amusing encounters wear a bit thin, like watching an endless parade of celebrities walking the red carpet. There's Man Ray. Here comes Luis Bunuel. Look at Josephine Baker shake her tail feathers. The symphony of a great city dwindles to one note.
Although "Midnight in Paris" lacks the complex layering of "Match Point," there's much to admire. Woody Allen revisits his signature themes of learning to enjoy life in the present, celebrating creativity and searching for meaningful relationships. Allen fans and armchair travelers alike will find themselves singing along with Cole Porter's "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love."