Stop staring at me!!

What’s in a name?  When Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon write a movie about going back in time, meeting famous historical dudes, and ultimately learning about yourself in the present, their film makes $40 million at the box office, spawns a sequel and an animated TV series and launched the career of an unlikely star.  When Brian and I write a skit about going back in time, meeting famous historical dudes, and ultimately learning about yourself in the present, we get an A in our Theory of Knowledge class.  At least, that’s how I remember it.

And, of course, when Woody Allen writes a film about going back in time, meeting famous historical figures, and ultimately learning about yourself in the present, Midnight in Paris becomes his highest grosser at the domestic box office, and its handlers are placing it square on the path to a writing nomination and quite possible a best picture one to boot.

Who knew that for Woody Allen to find success again, he just had to be derivative of me and Brian Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure?

The film is both accessible and likable, two traits that don’t always describe Allen’s films.  Sure, the film bears several of his hallmarks, most notably the neurotic protagonist/stand-in for Woody Allen (Owen Wilson in a role his schnozz was born to play), who is inevitably entwined with several attractive women (McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Lea Seydoux (the best part of Robin Hood), I guess flirting with Carla Bruni, the 1st lady of France) and supported by an outstanding ensemble cast in general.  But here, Allen seems to just have fun, drumming up a lighthearted romantic comedy.

I think writing in the voice of 1920s Parisians stirred something in Allen.  The present-day scenes are unremarkable, seeming to serve mainly as a conduit to get back in time.  There’s nothing particularly subtle about Rachel McAdams’s character, for example, and there’s no apparent reason given why Wilson ever was in a relationship with her to begin with.  I’ll add a caveat that while the joke lasted too long, until all possible humor was drained, I really enjoyed Michael Sheen as the obnoxiously pretentious know-it-all.  The man has incredible range, and if there’s anyone out there who only knows him as Tony Blair and/or David Frost, check him out as an over the top rocker in Laws of Attraction or Brian Clough in The Damned United for starters.

But back to 1920s Paris, where every seemingly every single portryal of a famous writer or artist is outsized exactly to the point where we’d like to imagine each personality being.  From Alison Pill’s fantastic flapper Zelda Fitzgerald to Corey Stoll’s larger than life Hemingway; from Adrien Brody’s suitably ridiculous Dali to Kathy Bates’s yeoman work as the ringleader Gertrude Stein, one imagine’s Allen’s advice to his talented cast as something along the lines of: “Go big or go home.”

And I think this verve shines through in the writing of these historical figures, as Allen seems to be laughing along with us as he tries to figure out which literary icon to shoehorn in next.  Historical accuracy becomes irrelevant as each pairing of titans becomes a new chance to see these great minds in action.

Indeed, I’d argue the love story is the weak thread in all of this.  I mentioned above my problems with Rachel McAdams’s character.  Marion Cotillard is her normal dazzling self, but I think her character is most effective as an entree into the lives of the historical figures.  And least effective when she serves as a way for Allen to slip back into his rut of neuroses.  I’m relatively ambivalent about the final scene, but I’d  hope those who complained that, say, (500) Days of Summer was too cute in that respect would bring up a similar point.

In terms of Oscar, if this film were done by Judy Allen, I don’t think I’m writing this post.  The film has a much lighter tone than your typical Oscar film, the characterization is relatively weak, the message borderline trite.  Which just means it is a fun summer movie that I could (and did) see with my grandmas and that they enjoyed.  Maaaybe a screenwriting nomination, if the rest of the year turns out to be weak.  But I’m skeptical, because I don’t think as many people go see it, and it isn’t like traveling back in time to meet famous people is a particulalr novel device.  As is, nothing is ever in the bag, but a writing nom wouldn’t be surprising in the least.  And it is certainly a candidate for best picture, but that may more depend on how many Oscar-type films fail to pan out.

It is too early for me to say if the film, writing, or performances would make my ballot.  I’m fairly doubtful, though I did enjoy the movie so that means I’m bullish on this year’s Oscar prospects.  I’m sure I’ll revisit later on.