Nostalgia is the subjective term that Midnight in Paris operates under and the singular obsession that Gil (Owen Wilson), the Woody Allen-type character, mulls over. He’s writing a novel, his first, and struggles with where to go with it. Gil’s career as a Hollywood-screenwriter has given him financial security, but he questions the quality of his work. Perhaps the eternal Woody Allen question that seems to plague him routinely is – will my work survive? Allen has noted in interviews that he does not expect as such, but conceivably, Midnight in Paris presents his first attempt at addressing the circumstances in which he believes as such.
Gil and his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) travel to Paris with Inez’s parents. The excursion provokes Gil’s admiration for the city, wherein he confesses that he wished to live in Paris during the jazz age – a golden age of cultural significance. Inez, the frustrating realist that she is, finds it difficult to grasp how someone could be so wrapped up in a period of time outside of the present. Her character is one that looks at the present, often treating Gil as if he were nothing more than a means - she wants him to keep working and to accumulate wealth, unaware of the emotional work that is required of Gil in the process.
Things only get more difficult between the two when they encounter the pedantic Paul (Michael Sheen), an old friend of Inez. Paul and his mate take Inez and Gil out to dinner – the outing tests Gil’s limits of tolerating pseudo-intellectualism, as Paul tends to offer his opinion on culture at every turn, typically beginning his sentences with a “correct me if I’m wrong…”. Gil eventually disconnects from the group, and wanders the streets of Paris by night. Like a fairy tale, the clock strikes 12 and a mysterious car invites him for a ride. Shrugging at the consequences, Gil is transported to a party unlike one he has ever attended – Cole Porter sits at the piano as Zelda and Scott ask about his writing. Ok, something’s not right here. The Fitzgerald’s take Gil barhopping throughout Paris, where he encounters Ernest Hemingway with the promise of showing his manuscript to Gertrude Stein. Things are definitely as they were before, and while Gil is aware of the stark change in his surroundings, he accepts them. While most films that deal with time travel tend to reflect on the greater meanings behind the transportation from time A to time B, Midnight in Paris bypasses all the sci-fi riff-raff, instead just presenting the situation as is, with only light jabs at the consequences of the altering the time-space continuum.
What Allen achieves in Midnight in Paris is no simple feat – he catapults the audience into a world of utter delight. Midnight in Paris frames The City of Light as intoxicatingly beautiful. It’s impossible not to yearn to be there, to follow the path that the lovely Adrianna (Mario Cotillard) and Gil take as they stroll the brick road, discussing their misplacement in the world. At some point, Gil encounters a situation where he needs to accept his place, or reject it entirely – it’s the sort of moment that recalls Allen’s endings to his best films, from Manhattan to Broadway Danny Rose. Midnight in Paris not only achieves an ending that stands up to Allen’s greatest films, its overall quality places it among his very best.