They are questions that beg nostalgia: If you could have drinks with anyone, living or dead, who would it be? If you could live one day in any city, any time, where would you go? Midnight in Paris captures the wonder of those time-traveling fantasies and still manages to celebrate the possibilities of reality. Gil (Owen Wilson), an affable but lost American in Paris, is visiting the city along with his fiance, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her parents. Their mis-matched dreams and desires are on display from the opening credits. He makes the romantic suggestion that they move to Paris so he can write after the wedding, and she quickly reminds him that he’s making money as a Hollywood screenwriter. The obvious tension between these two is Inez’s desire for the good life in America and Gil’s preoccupation with becoming something more than he is and doing it in a place that inspires him. Good-natured, but trapped by a woman who doesn’t respect or understand him, Gil gravitates toward the fantasy of 1920s Paris, preserved for all time by works such as Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. And this is where the fun begins.
Gil stumbles through the proverbial wardrobe one night and finds that he has been transported by magic to his desired location in the past. Woody Allen does a splendid job of exploring just what it might have been like to move in the orbit of luminaries such as Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, Dali and company. Ever wanted to visit Stein’s salon? Get advice from Hemingway? Toast the health of Zelda Fitzgerald? Gil has and does. Along the way, he finds a soul mate, Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a beautiful flapper who shares his sentimental outlook on life. We have been here before with movies like Somewhere in Time. Where that movie veered toward the maudlin, Midnight chooses a realistic view of cross-temporal romance and adds a twist that perfectly underscores the theme that the location of real love, courage, and vocation is not in the past, but in the present and the future.
This is a film that finds joy in the search for meaning even as it’s bound by the constraints of time and place. It steers us away from the mistaken belief that anyone, anywhere else, ever had it better or easier. Allen understands the temptation of nostalgia as that which allows us to escape the unacceptable present by visiting the idealized past. The question of the film is whether Gil and Adriana can grow into the kind of people who no longer need an imaginary “out.” In the meantime, it is a pleasure to escape along with them.