Now that Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris has been out for a while, and I’ve had a chance to think about it, I’ve decided to stick with my original impression: Owen Wilson is miscast. Still, Woody’s decision to put him in this movie, which was clearly a labor of love, tells us a lot about what happens to great artists in the twilight of their careers.
We understand, of course, that Woody’s obsession with New York culminated in Manhattan, and that he then found a substitute—if that’s the right word—for New York in Paris. This is the subtext of Everyone Says I Love You, which begins in New York and ends in Paris. If that makes sense, it accounts for the cleverness and inventiveness of one of his best movies ever.
Woody stayed with Paris in Midnight in Paris, and it’s obvious how it evolved from his earlier work. He wanted to create an hommage to his idols of the past—not the (Jewish) comedians like Groucho Marx (the party of the Groucho lookalikes in Everyone Says I Love You), but to the (WASP) artists of European modernism.
So Woody needed a WASP actor, and chose Owen Wilson, than whom no one in today’s Hollywood is WASPy-er. It must have helped that Wilson is mostly known for his comic roles. But if in Wilson he got a WASP comedian, he also got somebody without angst or gravitas, and I mean that in the nicest possible way.
What Woody clearly wanted was someone who would be in awe of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, as his character in Play It Again, Sam -- from which Midnight in Paris clearly derives -- was in awe of Bogey. The problem is that while Wilson is a likeable, talented guy, he can’t project awe.
I never believed for a moment that he idolized Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eliot, and the others, although the scenes in which they appear are as beautifully staged as the dance scenes in Everyone Says I Love You.
When all is said and done, Midnight in Paris is a beautiful recapitulation of Woody’s favorite theme—love of a great city—and his favorite semi-, quasi-autobiographical character: a writer torn between high culture and popular culture.
Although this movie is lovely to look at, and has some charming scenes with one delightful cameo after another (Adrien Brody is especially memorable as Salvador Dali), Owen Wilson creates a problem that no amount of movie magic can overcome.