Woody Allen has found the right time and the right place with "Midnight in Paris," his lightest, funniest and most-satisfying movie in a long time.
Shooting a full film in France for the first time, writer-director Allen has crafted a pastry-light romantic fantasy with virtually no dramatic pretensions, unlike the comic dramas and even outright tragedy that has dominated his work for the last eight years or so.
Allen presents a wide-eyed-with-wonder view of the City of Light that nicely complements his story of an American writer (Owen Wilson) who pines for the 1920s Paris of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. All things seem possible here, so when the impossible starts to happen, it's easy to slip into the clever conceit Allen uses to test his protagonist's devotion to a nostalgic dream of days past.
"Midnight in Paris" bears similarities to 1985's "The Purple Rose of Cairo" and 1990's "Alice," in which Allen used magical elements similar to those he employs here. The new movie has little of the heft or pathos of those earlier ones, and it's not necessarily a bad thing.
Feather-light does not necessarily mean feather-headed; as aliens said to Allen's filmmaker alter-ego in "Stardust Memories": "We like your movies. Especially the early, funny ones." "Midnight in Paris" is like one of those early, funny ones.
Wilson's Gil is a successful Hollywood screenwriter who yearns to give up the schlock he writes for the screen and focus on his novel instead.
Visiting Paris with his fiancie, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her disapproving parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy), Gil whines in the standard fashion of Allen and his various stand-ins since the filmmaker began easing himself off-camera.
Life today is too fast, too hollow, too homogenized, Gil thinks. Wouldn't it be great if things were rich and vibrant like Paris of the 1920s, he wonders?
As midnight chimes on Gil's drunken stroll through the city one night, a vintage car full of revelers stops to pick up Gil, who is transported back to that golden era, where he encounters Stein (Kathy Bates), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and wife Zelda (scene-stealer Alison Pill).
Most important, Gil meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard), the bewitching lover of Pablo Picasso. Over Gil's ensuing trips back to the 1920s, he and Adriana find themselves kindred spirits from really different time zones.
Guiltily, Gil tries to conceal his time-traveling dalliance from Inez, who has her own suspicious relations with old friend Paul (Michael Sheen), a pedantic windbag on holiday in Paris with his wife.
French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy pops up in a small role as a Rodin museum guide.
The performances are mostly assured all around, with Bates simply commanding in her brief moments as Stein, Stoll drolly funny launching into manly Hemingway-speak, Hiddleston utterly charming as Fitzgerald and Brody hilarious in a tiny gag bit as Dali.
Wilson is fine, yet while his laid-back boyishness suits Gil's romantic notions of the past, it clashes with the character's intellectual affectations. Hearing Gil discourse on the surrealists in Wilson's slow drone of a voice takes some of the vim out of his exchanges.
The gags inspired by the time juxtapositions often are silly, even a bit cheap, such as Gil planting the seed of a film idea in the mind of director Luis Bunuel. Yet it's a winsome silliness that provokes consistent laughter, and laughs are laughs, cheap or not.
Allen's shots of Paris cover the predictable sights - the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Tuilleries - and they're so radiant they might make you want to book a flight over as soon as you leave the theater. This is Allen's love song to Paris, the place he says he probably would live if he weren't born a New Yorker, and it's as pretty a picture as any he's ever painted for Manhattan.
With a thin, easily digestible moral lesson against romanticizing the past as better times than the ones we live in, "Midnight in Paris" serves up just enough substance to avoid turning trivial.
The outcome of Gil's search is pretty obvious about halfway through the film, and when the final scene plays out, Allen fans may feel as if they've seen this sort of Hollywood ending before - and they have, in many other Allen films.
But as with those aliens, we like Allen's early, funny ones, too. Even when they're latter-day funny ones like "Midnight in Paris."
"Midnight in Paris," a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated PG-13 for some sexual references and smoking. Running time: 94 minutes. Three stars out of four.