Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is pretty close to being great, almost worthy of being mentioned with Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Husbands and Wives. The guy knows how to shoot a city; Paris (a city I’ve never visited) looks exactly the way it exists in the minds of most people. Narrow, cobblestone streets, merchants going about their business, buskers plying their trade… it’s a very romantic city in a fairly romantic movie. Like the best Woody Allen movies, I left the theater wanting to live in the movie’s universe.
The story, that of an idealistic would-be novelist who romanticizes the past (in this case, Paris of the 1920s) only to get the chance to live there and meet his idols (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, among others), is a great idea and Allen pulls it off in a neat, economical way- a “magic” Peugot that appears at midnight every night to whisk Gil (the would-be novelist) off to the 20s.
Every scene in which Gil visits and is amazed by these artists that he has only studied and enjoyed is perfection; Allen casts the movie extremely well. The guy who plays Hemingway is the stand-out; pure virility and machismo presented in clipped prose and a moustache. But it isn’t only about how his heroes live up to his expectations; the movie is also about how Paris itself maneuvers itself into being the city he loves.
As the movie opens, Gil is enamored by Paris, even considering dropping his Hollywood digs and moving there with his fiancé, Inez. This is important- Gil loves himself some Paris. The problem with his plan, and ultimately what costs the movie its greatness, is the character of Inez. I can’t remember a time where a movie is so undone by a single character. Every single time Inez appears on screen, some of the time with her equally awful parents, the movie stops cold and turns into a grind; no, worse than that. It turns into a grind that I can’t and don’t buy for one second.
How would a character like Gil, who is established from the opening scenes, fall in love with a character like Inez? She is not enamored with the beauty of Paris (something Allen makes sure the audience is by opening the movie with a montage of Paris that makes it impossible not to fall in love with the city). Gil is a happy, friendly guy; Inez is a shrill, awful buzzkill. She can’t and won’t get on board with sightseeing, instead wanting to spend time with her pompous friends.
Inez is the exact opposite of Gil, so much so that there was never a time that I could believe in a world where these two would even date, much less get married. The fact that I couldn’t believe this relationship hurt the movie, as it made Gil’s conflict about what time period in which he wanted to live less urgent.
It’s a shame, because with a better-written character, Midnight in Paris would be inarguably a fantastic movie. As it is, it’s good, far better than most recent Woody Allen movies. Vicky Cristina Barcelona still stands as his best movie of the last 15 years.
It got me to thinking, though; what are some other movies that could have been great but for one element in them? Here are a few that come to mind:
- In the Line of Fire: Malkovich is so fucking creepy and awesome in this that you almost forget how awkward Clint and Renee Russo are. I love Clint, but he is almost actively bad in his little courtship of Russo. Without the shoehorning of this love story, which no one could have possibly cared about, the movie would be a classic.
- Batman Returns: This is the best Danny Elfman score ever, the idea of setting it during winter in Gotham was atmospheric and perfect, and Catwoman and Chris Walken rule. But DeVito as the Penguin sinks the movie, and Michael Keaton has nothing to do as Batman. I like the scene of him spitting out his gazpacho, though.
- Green Street Hooligans- This movie came out of nowhere, at least for me. The topic, about soccer hooliganism, was something I hadn’t seen before, and Charlie Hunnam was excellent as the head hooligan. However, Elijah Wood is so miscast that it almost sinks the rest. There is simply nothing bad-ass about Elijah Wood (excepting, of course, Sin City).
- Jeepers Creepers- Not really close to a great movie as a whole, but the first half hour or so is one of the greatest horror movies in memory. The last hour? Not so much.
- On Her Majesties Secret Service- Lazenby is not a great Bond; otherwise, this would be one the best, if not THE best of the series.