Money, passion square off in Allen’s latest

It’s fairly common to hear someone say, “I wish I could have lived in the 1950s” or “I wonder what it was like to be a flapper in the 1920s.”  What’s not as common is the realization of that curiosity, something Woody Allen delightfully brings to the screen in his newest film, Midnight In Paris.

Crossroads · Gil (Wilson) is torn between a life spent pursuing his literary passions in Paris and chasing after paychecks in Hollywood. - Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The end result is full of aesthetic intrigue, in which Allen subliminally urges viewers to drop everything and move to Paris, a place that seems to ooze with romance, beauty and spontaneity.

Allen also asks the question, “How often will we wish we lived in a different era?”

Filmed on location in the iconic French capital, Owen Wilson stars as Gil Pender, a successful screenwriter whose true passion lies in reading and writing novels. He and his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) are tourists from California.

Inez is oddly repugnant. In her most spiteful role since Mean Girls, McAdams plays a materialistic, stuck-up, Los Angeles stereotype. She wants to spend her time shopping for expensive French items to furnish her future Malibu beach house, while Wilson’s Gil wants to stroll the gorgeous Parisian streets and absorb the artistic culture.

She also discourages Gil from pursuing his first passion — literature. The real money is in Hollywood, not in books.

Wilson and McAdams (who also starred in Wedding Crashers together) represent a contrast of passions and possessions. For some, things like pearl earrings and extravagant five-course meals equal happiness. But for others like Gil, fulfillment comes through exploration of art and natural beauty.

Driven by nostalgic thoughts of past cultural booms — like the Jazz Age of the 1920s — Gil longs to stay in Paris forever.

One night while strolling the city alone under the moonlight, Gil’s time-traveling adventures begin when he agrees to take a ride in a stranger’s old-fashioned 1920s automobile. While it’s difficult to explain how, when midnight rolls around in the City of Lights, he ends up meeting an array of artistic icons. Frank and Zelda Fitzgerald booze it up with him, Ernest Hemingway challenges him to a fistfight and Gertrude Stein helps edit his novel.

Casting directors Stéphane Foenkinos, Patricia Kerrigan DiCerto and Juliet Taylor made Allen’s directorial job easy by assembling an incredible group of actors, including Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody and Carla Bruni.

Corey Stoll (Law & Order: Los Angeles) is the biggest standout as the troubled Hemingway, whose obsession with violence, alcohol and writing is somehow endearing.

Underneath the beautiful city and all-star casting, though, lies Allen’s classic ability to write quick-witted dialogue while tapping into characters whose lives are at a crossroads. Gil’s realistic struggle to choose between the pursuit of personal happiness as opposed to his questionable obligation to Inez is a driving thematic force.

But unlike the bleak outlook Allen’s films conveyed in years past (Annie Hall, Scoop) this new film is surprisingly optimistic. It’s a journey of self-discovery; for Allen, it’s also surprisingly cliche.

But it works.

And after seeing Allen’s Midnight, audiences may just wish they could spend all their midnights in Paris.