Take the Monet and run?

A lot of critics are praising Midnight in Paris as a return to form for Woody Allen, but it’s hard for me to get behind that assessment. The new release, which I saw last week in New York, is a flight of fancy about an American who journeys back to the Paris of the 1920s. The film was enjoyable enough, but only reinforced in my mind how far Allen’s stature has fallen.

As with many, my entry point with Allen was first Annie Hall, a film I used to show to prospective girlfriends as sort of a test (this may partially explain why I am single), and then Manhattan.  By those lights, Midnight in Paris is a minor work, a toss-off. From what I have read, Allen would likely disagree, but mainly because his view of his process, and of his films themselves, comes off as rather workmanlike.

Midnight makes for an interesting bookend with Manhattan. Both open with similar extended shots of their respective locales. And both, as with many of Allen’s films, concern an unrealistic sense of romance and nostalgia. “He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion – er, no, make that: he – he romanticized it all out of proportion,” Allen says, of himself, over the gorgeous black-and-white images of the city.

Allen has always been fetishistic about the past. His films, which conservatively always begin in the same style, with the same typeface, are suffused with old jazz recordings or classical pieces. Many of his movies are homages to old masters, such as Stardust Memories (1980) and Fellini. His characters, usually played by Allen himself, find solace in the Marx Brothers or Bogart.

Midnight, without giving too much away, deals explicitly with the theme of living in the past, quite literally, in fact. As such, it’s a natural subject for Allen. And the pleasure it yields arises largely from familiar names, and faces, piled on so high that it feels a bit like being assaulted by a 20th century lit course.

Owen Wilson, like the stars of many of Allen’s recent films, tries to channel Woody while only barely succeeding. And his laid-back, stoner delivery is completely at odds with Allen’s familiar mania. Truth be told: what sounds like a better potential for comedy:  Owen Wilson barely-there Texan having a conversation with Hemingway about hunting, or Allen’s nervous, urbanized New Yorker?

You might argue (since Allen is so Freudian) that his predilection for younger women, most vividly expressed in Manhattan,  is another attempt to pursue the past at expense of the present. It’s that aspect of that film that seems to, oddly enough, date it more than anything. We’re more conservative as a nation now than in the liberated 1970s–and a romance between a 42-year-old man and a 17-year-old girl in a mainstream movie these days would likely elicit outrage and comparisons to Elizabeth Smart. (Playing the 17-year-old? Mariel Hemingway, Papa’s granddaughter. Another connection between the films.) Compare and contrast Manhattan to, for example, the relationship between Bill Murray and Allen favorite Scarlett Johanssen in Lost in Translation (2003).

Manhattan has always been one of my favorite movies. With its lush cinematography, the soaring Gershwin score and the urbane references, it seemed, to a kid in Ohio, as a passport to another universe.  As noted above, Midnight involves an actual passage to another place and time.  But this time around, the journey is less interesting, the characters less alive. The film lacks the sharp, sometimes uncomfortable edges that characterizes Allen’s best work.

Midnight ends with the central character learning a lesson about nostalgia–but the ending is more old-time Hollywood than anything Allen ever attempted in Annie Hall or Manhattan.  The ultimate pessimist has mellowed with time. Better for him. Not so much for the rest of us.

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