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Tuesday 20 March 2018

Review: Midnight in Paris * * *

(12A, limited release)

Paul Whitington

Woody Allen's most commercially successful film in years, Midnight in Paris, has enjoyed warm US reviews, some of them involving the dread phrase, 'Woody returns to form'. If by that they mean that Allen has rediscovered the sarcastic spark of films such as Annie Hall and Manhattan, they're very much mistaken. But while no masterpiece, Midnight in Paris is a genuinely charming piece of whimsy that unites many of Allen's earliest themes and lacks the unfinished quality that has afflicted so many of his recent films.

All those films have featured characters that would have been played by Allen himself were he still acting: put-upon men in unhappy relationships who earn a living hacking out stupid screenplays or TV shows and would write that novel if only they could find the time. Owen Wilson plays that part here, and is without doubt the best Woody proxy yet. He is Gil Pender, a successful but unsatisfied Hollywood screenwriter who has come to Paris to celebrate his engagement to Inez (Rachel McAdams), a pretty but hopelessly materialistic middle-class princess.

She has brought her crass parents along, and while Gil wants to do things such as walk along the Seine at night, Inez and co have flashier entertainments in mind. Gil fobs them off to work on his novel, and goes for his midnight walks alone. On one of them, a vintage car pulls up and a group of revellers beckon him inside. They're dressed in 20s clothing, but Gil assumes they're off to a fancy-dress party and opts to go along for the ride.

But Gil has been magically transported back to a Paris between the wars to meet heroes such as Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill) and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). Gil is overjoyed, but when he falls in love he's forced to choose between the present and the past.

Allen's 'grass is always greener' theme is amplified by some hilarious exchanges, as when a young Luis Bunuel rejects as ridiculous the entire premise of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. But it's Wilson who makes the whole thing work. His wistful melancholy can undermine more conventional romantic comedies, but it's entirely appropriate here, and there may be more to come from he and Allen.

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