Once, someone nominated ‘a partial return to form from Woody Allen’ as the epitome of faint critical praise – and that run of dispiriting British-set films squelched the spirits of even true believers – but this is his most satisfying movie since Sweet and Lowdown, and makes as much sense as a homage to the work of Jack Finney (the novel Time and Again, especially) as it does an entry in Allen’s occasional mix of his brand of name-dropping comedy with The Twilight Zone (cf: The Purple Rose of Cairo, Alice). Gil (Owen Wilson), a successful Hollywood hack screenwriter (we never find out what kind of movies he writes) who wants to be a novelist, is in Paris with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her Republican parents. Though Inez and her Dad (Kurt Fuller) are all business – with a funny Tea Party joke that is one of the few concessions towards a realistic, specific depiction of the present day – Gil is enthused by the city at all hours of the day and in all kinds of weather (the opening is a Manhattan-style montage which isn’t quite magical enough – it seems more like a set of holiday slides or postcards than a love letter to a place), and especially by its cultural associations.
At a loose end, walking home late, he is summoned at midnight into a vintage car and driven to the 1920s, when he runs into many famous people – Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston, Alison Pill), Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Dali (Adrien Brody), Bunuel, Picasso, etc – and gets stuck on their all-purpose muse Adriana (Marion Cotillard). The bittersweet, logical punchline is that, while on one of his time jaunts, he and Adriana are picked up by a coach and taken back to la Belle Epoque, the era Adriana sees as a Golden Age, and she wants to stay with Gaugin, Lautrec & Co., prompting Gil to realise that every time is someone’s Golden Age and return to the present where he lets Inez leave – she has been having an affair with one of Allen’s pompous wrongheaded glamour guys (Michael Sheen, in the role Peter Weller labelled ‘the asshole’ when he got stuck with it in Mighty Aphrodite) and stay to finish the novel that Gertrude Stein has admired (‘it’s almost like science fiction,’ an unthinkable 1920s phrase) and hook up with a cute nostalgia vendor (Lea Seydoux) though the presence of Carla Bruni in a bit role as a museum guide rather distorts this since she would seem a more fit partner for him.
Wilson is the latest of many performers to take ‘the Woody Allen role’, and among the most congenial in that his own image of restless slackerism and semi-zonked serenity is a good fit with Allen’s neurotic, pattering, passive-aggressive wistfulness. The famous people we run into aren’t depicted realistically, but – as Gil notes – the way we want them to be: Stoll’s Hemingway speaks in perfect Hemingway parody prose, Pill’s Zelda is a maddening firecracker going off in all directions, Brody’s Dali is a sublimely lunatic egoist who keeps insisting on the pronunciation of his name. There are a few gags about their works – with Gil pitching Bunuel the plot of An Exterminating Angel, only for the director to be as puzzled by the premise as many non-fans were when he made it in 1952 – but mostly these guest stars serve a symbolic function as icons of a seductively lovely era. Allen usually films the present plainly, but is capable of fantastical charm when nostalgia inflames him – it’s why Radio Days is one of his few perfect films – and (abetted by cinematographer Darius Khondji, a canny choice) delivers a charming, funny, exciting 1920s with (inevitably) Cole Porter music, great clothes and a sense of unending party-cum-salon. There’s no more mention of the way the trauma of the previous war added a desperation to all this high-life, even when Hemingway is telling a war story, or the spiralling economic and political disasters would lead to the next one – just as the supposed horrors of the present Gil wants to get away from are so nebulously evoked as to be phantasmal.
It only really presents the notion of the present in Paris as a golden age as hanging out with Lea Seydoux, a nymphet whose love for Cole Porter is no more unlikely than someone Owen Wilson’s age having that enthusiasm (Woody Allen is not about to make a film whose lead’s musical tastes run to Kurt Cobain or even the Beach Boys). Like most Americans, Allen doesn’t want to think about the current state of a Europe which has its own problems and views Paris the way he views French stars Cotillard and Seydoux, or even France’s current First Lady, as an epitome of something elusive and perfect. It is an advance that he lets Adriana have her own delusion, but that in the end just makes her as wrong as Inez.