Woody Allen fans are a nostalgic bunch, and can often be found looking back at the director's considerable body of work only to complain that his films ain't what they used to be. That sense of nostalgia is the central theme in Allen's latest film, and the result is the liveliest picture he has made for some time. Midnight in Paris is the story of an American in Paris, and true to Woody form, he's a neurotic Hollywood screenwriter who dreams of becoming a novelist instead. He's in France looking to be artistically inspired, but he's stuck with an uptight, demanding fiancée (Rachel McAdams), her Republican parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) and her know-it-all ex (Michael Sheen). No wonder Gil (Owen Wilson) yearns for a different set of companions, and for the golden age of Paris life.
Standing idly on a corner one night, as he walks the city's empty streets, Gil gets picked up by an old-fashioned car and whisked back to the 1920's. He wanders into a bar in which Cole Porter is tinkling the ivories, Hemingway (a wonderful, movie-stealing Corey Stoll) is in conversation with Fitzgerald, and Dalí is sitting at a table with Buñuel. In fact, there are famous faces from that bygone age wherever Gil looks, and they immediately take him into their circle, offering words of wisdom as Gil shares his 21st century problems.
It's a delightful conceit, and one that has inspired Allen to make his lightest and most breezily enjoyable picture for many years. The name-dropping and the referential gags are prime Woody material, but they feel much fresher in Midnight in Paris than the Dostoevsky or Sophocles citations have done in his recent heavy-handed morality tales. The films from Allen's oeuvre that Midnight in Paris most recalls are two of my personal favourites – Sweet and Lowdown and The Purple Rose of Cairo – and I think there's something about a period setting that sharpens his focus and fires his creative juices. Visually, the film is his sharpest for a while – with co-directors Johanne Debas and Darius Khondji giving the film a lush sheen that embarrasses some of Woody's recent point-and-shoot efforts – and the director handles the transitions between periods with ease and wit. One of my favourite gags involves the fate of a private eye Gil's concerned parents-in-law employ, as Allen adds multiple levels to the film's time-shifts.
Those additional layers are added in part because Mario Cotillard's Adriana - the mistress of Picasso with whom Gil briefly becomes infatuated – yearns to escape the period that so dazzles Gil and escape into the Belle Époque era inhabited by Toulouse-Lautrec and Gaugain. Just as Woody Allen fans yearn for a return to the director's own belle époque, Adriana wants to enjoy a time that has long passed, but Midnight in Paris goes some way to satisfying all desires – by allowing Adriana to fulfil her dream, and by being a film that recaptures a little of the whimsical magic and humour that Allen is capable of at his best. Of course, the issues that have plagued much of Allen's work remain; some characters, notably the one poor Rachel McAdams is lumbered with, are paper-thin, and his writing is still often clumsily on-the-nose. But it's hard to resist the charms of Midnight in Paris, and hard to deny the pleasure of seeing Woody Allen regain just a little of the spring in his step that we all thought he'd lost.