The conflict at the core of Midnight in Paris is one of nostalgia versus modernism. Should we hold on to the past and all the things that made it great that are no longer around? Or should we look for what we want in the present and appreciate what is available to us at this moment? Of course, this also being a Woody Allen film (and one of his good ones at that!), means that romance is of course a key component. Romance is present between its characters, but in this case, romance is also visibly between a character and his or her environment. The film opens with a montage of beautiful shots of Paris throughout the day. This is reminiscent of Manhattan, Allen's 1979 film that many considered his New York "love letter."
Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is the "Woody Allen character" of the film. A lot of what he says sounds like what Allen would say when he was in his own movies or when he has a surrogate in his shoes. Gil loves Paris. In the beginning, he can't stop talking about all of its advantages and positive qualities as if he is writing that "love letter." As a city with such a rich history of being host to numerous writers, painters, filmmakers, etc., Gil thinks he might be inspired enough to finally move from screenwriting to crafting a novel that he can pleased with. He is also there with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents for a pre-wedding vacation, but Gil gets bored with all the shopping. Then he gets frustrated with her falling for an old crush that happens to be a fake intellectual (Michael Sheen)... so Gil starts walking around Paris at midnight. That is where things get really interesting.
In a scenario reminiscent of Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo, Gil is suddenly transported back into 1920s Paris. There is no explanation needed; something magical just happens. Gil is suddenly among F. Scott and Linda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), and Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody). He meets a girl named Adriana (Marion Cotillard) who is dating Pablo Picasso and Gil falls for her. Sorry if this is feeling plot-heavy, but that is ultimately the strength of Allen's work as a whole in my opinion- the ingenuity of his scripts or however he directs actors if the scenes are improvized.
I really enjoyed the ensemble. Owen is perfect as Allen's "replacement." It's a creepishly good pairing and probably one of the more natural fits I've seen Allen choose. I was very worried that I might find the performances for the 1920s characters as too gimmicky and one-note, but I actually felt they complimented the tone that Allen was going for very nicely. Special consideration should be mentioned for Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway. I've been a fan of Stoll's theater work and to see him harness a character obsessed with formality and masculinity is a lot of fun and leads to some of the film's better jokes. Perhaps the week point might be McAdams and Sheen. They really only exist to push Gil away, but ultimately they are necessary and we get to see Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy as Inez's parents when her character is around, so that is a plus.
Woody Allen has made some very light-hearted comedies and some very darkly-depressing dramas that both revolve around romantic entanglements. This is one of his more optimistic stories. To have romance examined in the context of "past vs. present" creates a narrative that not only ruminates about true love, but also illuminates its importance.