Nostalgia is what it used to be - for a while, at least - in Woody Allen’s elegant time-travel comedy Midnight in Paris (2011), in which a Hollywood screen-writer, Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), vacationing in Gay Paree with his fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and trying to work on a novel, hears the chimes at midnight and finds himself transported back to his favourite epoch: the City of Light in the 1920s.
The witty, old-fashioned confection that Allen conjures from this premise (which owes something to that of the 1990s BBC series Goodnight Sweetheart) has become - somewhat surprisingly - his highest-grossing movie ever, and one that’s finally re-awakened American audience’s love affair with the director. Told in Allen’s briskest, most playful style, and shot in gorgeous warm tones by Darius Khondji and Johanne Debas, Midnight in Paris is a fine light entertainment, combining the fantastic mode of Allen’s classic The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) with the Henry James-lite Yanks-do-Europe concerns of Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008).
The movie’s warm, wry, romantic tone is established from the off, with an opening montage of Paris scenes so unashamedly touristy that it makes you laugh. And from there on the pleasures are numerous. Up front there’s Owen Wilson’s often-uncanny Allen impersonation in the lead role (watch out in particular for a scene where he emerges from a bathroom baring a pair of earrings and seems, for a moment, to have become Woody), as well as nicely observed turns from McAdams and from Michael Sheen as an unctuous friend.
Mostly, Allen wrests laughs via the roll-call of luminaries that Gil interacts with in the 1920s scenes, all portrayed with just the right degree of affectionate caricature by the other members of the lovely cast. Kathy Bates’s Gertrude Stein is a wonderfully straight-forward fount-of-wisdom; Corey Stoll's Hemingway is hilariously earnest, and Adrien Brody does Dali to a T. As F. Scott Fitzgerald Tom Hiddleston smiles his most beguiling smile, and Marion Cottilard twinkles bewitchingly as a muse to many. Allen provides a light dusting of philosophy, and a little social comment too, as the movie contrasts the supportive, open, bi-lingual artistic community of the 20s (as perceived/constructed by Gil, at least) with the superficial tendenicies of the contemporary Americans, who, with the exception of Gil, disdain the idea of living in Europe.
There’s a little fuzzy plotting in the final third - some business about a significant diary seems fumbled - but for the most part Allen keeps proceedings on track in a way that he can’t always be relied upon to do. And such minor lapses don’t detract from the movie’s appeal or the cogency of its gentle argument for living in the now. A charmer.