MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
The overall experience of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, at least for me, can be effectively visualized in one sequence - one shot, really - in this jubilant, intoxicating comedy.
Owen Wilson's Gil, a dissatisfied, modern-day Hollywood screenwriter on extended vacation in the city of lights, has found himself miraculously transported to Paris in the 1920s, a place and time he considers history's most fertile era for artistic expression. After arriving at a swanky, after-hours party - one that includes F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, and Pablo Picasso on the guest list - he's convinced by Ernest Hemingway to join the gang for a late-night soirée at the legendary nightclub Chez BrickTop. With Zelda pounding booze, an intense Hemingway expounding on the necessity of courage, and Josephine Baker shimmying in the background, Gil takes a moment to survey the scene, which he does with wide-eyed, open-mouthed awe. How on Earth did he get here? How on earth did he get so lucky to get here? And after a few beats - with Allen's camera lingering on Wilson's transformation - Gil's incredulous expression morphs into one of pure, unquestioning joy. Who cares how his impossible bit of time travel was accomplished? He's here, he feels at home, and he never wants to leave.
Through the whole of Midnight in Paris' 90-minute running length, I felt exactly the same way. It's hardly a secret that Woody Allen is my all-time favorite filmmaker; it's also hardly a secret that, over the past decade and a half, I've been underwhelmed by more Woody Allen movies than I'd care to admit. (Among 11 titles, last year's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger seemed to mark a new low for the auteur this millennium, though 2002's Hollywood Ending would give it a serious run for the money.) But I'd have to go back to 1997's Deconstructing Harry to find a Woody film that I love with this kind of fervor, and further than that - to 1987's Radio Days, maybe - to find one this purely, ravishingly charming. Midnight in Paris opens with a grand, expansive montage of Paris locales and closes on a simple, elegant image of two people crossing a bridge, and in between, its writer/director finds room for romance, insight, magic, one-liners, a litany of artistic and cultural references, and nearly two dozen sharp and ticklish character turns. The movie is utter bliss; I walked out of the auditorium wanting to do nothing more than walk right back in and wait for the next screening.
With so many actors, over the years, trying (and mostly failing) to believably portray Woody's onscreen surrogate - John Cusack, Kenneth Branagh, Jason Biggs, Will Ferrell, Larry David ... - it seems almost inconceivable that Owen Wilson, of all people, would prove the right man for the job. In Midnight in Paris, however, his laid-back, open-hearted, slightly abashed sincerity softens and humanizes Woody's dialogue. The character of Gil is still recognizably neurotic, and always quick with a snappy comeback (though never a mean-spirited one), but Wilson lends him a sweetness and romantic ardor that feel completely genuine; it's not just the character, but the actor, who appears completely enraptured by the film's mood. Wilson, exquisitely underplaying Gil's frequent confusion and eventual liberation, appears transcendently happy here - it might be his most fully realized comic performance to date.
Perhaps it helped that, everywhere Wilson turned, he was playing opposite such fiendishly funny and clever performers. As Gil's brittle, hostile fiancée Inez, Rachel McAdams comes through with a roaring caricature of moneyed arrogance and impatience - she's matched by Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy as her equally loathsome, equally hilarious parents - while Michael Sheen is priceless as Inez's former professor Paul, a pedantic blowhard so hysterically full of himself that you wish he were around far more often than he is. (You also wish for more of the fabulous Nina Arianda as Paul's cheerful, somewhat dim traveling companion.) Those populating Gil's supernatural retreats to the 1920s, meanwhile, couldn't be bettered. Marion Cotillard - her talent and beauty so cinematically essential that it's hard to remember what movies were like before she began appearing in them - is thoughtful and enchanting as Gil's romantic ideal. And Corey Stoll's Hemingway, Tom Hiddleston's and Alison Pill's Scott and Zelda, Kathy Bates' Gertrude Stein, Adrien Brody's Salvador Dalí, and others are the exact, instantly recognizable stereotypes you want them to be. (We're also given brief flashes of Alice B. Toklas, Louis Buñuel, T.S. Eliot, Paul Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, and many more figures of the period.)
Beautifully shot by the superb cinematographer Darius Khondji and gorgeously designed by an impeccable team of production artists, Midnight in Paris is a (moveable) feast for the eyes, and with Woody providing such a bevy of smart and savvy - and richly knowing - lines, one for the ears as well. ("That was Djuna Barnes?" asks Gil about one of his dancing companions. "No wonder she wanted to lead!") Plus, for fellow fans of Woody's comedic prose, I'd argue that the movie is unmissable, especially if you've long yearned for an adaptation of his classic short story "A Twenties Memory," which climaxes with the author, after being routinely punched in the nose by Ernest Hemingway, being punched in the nose by Gertrude Stein. No similar event takes place in Midnight in Paris, but in every other way, the movie is a knockout. Quelle magnifique!
JUDY MOODY & THE NOT BUMMER SUMMER
Adapted from Megan McDonald's series of beloved children's books, director John Schultz's Judy Moody & the Not Bummer Summer is in every way a family film of our time, meaning that this candy-colored, hyperactive, exhaustingly synthetic entertainment features urine, excrement, and puke jokes, and the most restrained performance is given by Jaleel "Urkel" White. (The mind kind of boggles, doesn't it?) Without dwelling on the tiresome experience, then, let's just be thankful that Heather Graham, with her mischievous twinkle, shows up as the accident-prone, guerrilla-artist aunt to the leading tyke (the game, mostly bearable Jordanna Beatty). And while we're at it, let's be thankful that Judy's younger brother, Stink, is played by a young man named Parris Mosteller, whose readings hold the only surprise of anyone's in the cast. Somehow, the kid manages to pronounce the word "weird" so that the "r" sounds like a "w," and the "w" sounds like an "r." Reiwd, indeed.