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Thursday, August 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 71.0° F  Fair
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Midnight in Paris turns the City of Light into dullsville
French disconnection
Owen Wilson plays a version of Woody Allen.
Owen Wilson plays a version of Woody Allen.

I like the fantasy premise of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, and I'm happy he's telling a supernatural story. It's a familiar but sometimes overlooked mode for Allen, whose fantasy films include Zelig and The Purple Rose of Cairo.

In Midnight in Paris, a screenwriter and struggling novelist named Gil (Owen Wilson) is transported night after night to 1920s Paris. He is bewildered but grateful when he finds himself in the company of incomparable artists like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Salvador Dalí. He joins their circle, hobnobs with Cole Porter, gets Stein to read his manuscript.

It's a pity that among these greats, the ones who get the most screen time turn out to be, well, dull, though I don't think that's what Allen intended. Hemingway (Corey Stoll) blathers on in stilted paragraphs about What It Means To Be A Writer, and here is something in the same vein that Stein (Kathy Bates) says, though I seem not to have gotten the quote exactly right in my notes: "The artist's job is to something something despair in the universe."

That these people are boring caricatures never registers with Gil, who keeps popping his eyes like a kid in a Disney World commercial. True, there are some lively impersonations. The best one is by Adrien Brody, who is appropriately wacky as Dalí. Another wry moment comes when Gil, speaking to Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van), plants the seeds of the filmmaker's 1962 The Exterminating Angel. Funny, though Robert Zemeckis employed the same gag, except with Chuck Berry, in another time-travel film, 1985's Back to the Future. Maybe Allen didn't see that.

As Jason Biggs did in Anything Else, Owen plays a version of Allen's familiar screen persona, tweedy sport coats, neurosis and all. The parts of Midnight in Paris that are set in the present are likewise vintage Woody: Bright, affluent white people walk and talk their way around a gorgeously photographed, miraculously grunge-free metropolis - the French capital, in this case.

In these scenes, Gil is unhappy with his work, and he doesn't seem very enthusiastic about his fiancée (Rachel McAdams). She is smitten with cinema's most amusing pedant (Michael Sheen) since the guy who talked superciliously about Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall. Little wonder that Gil is so enchanted by his magical destination, and by the beautiful woman (Marion Cotillard) he meets there.

The message of the film turns out to be that nostalgia isn't very constructive, and we shouldn't dwell in the past too much. Fair enough. Allen does such a good job of making even 1920s Paris seem tedious that, believe me, I don't want to go there.

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