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On Movies: Woody's in good form in 'Paris'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 14, 2011 - In "Play It Again, Sam," a spoof of Humphrey Bogart movies that came out in 1972, Woody Allen famously said, "Eighty percent of being successful in life is showing up." (Pop quiz: Who directed "Play It Again, Sam?" This is not a trick question.)

Allen was in his 30s when he starred in "Play It Again Sam," and in the intervening decades he seems to have taken his own advice, staying busy, turning out a feature film every year or so - some good, some bad, some indifferent, a handful spectacular. The neuroses-nurturing Brooklynite is now 75 years old. He has more than 40 movies to his credit, and he keeps showing up with a new one. His latest, "Midnight in Paris," is another success, a charming, feather-light fantasy about the enduring charms of the City of Lights.

About 10 years ago, Allen hit a low point with such forgettable films as "Small Town Crooks," "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," "Hollywood Ending" and "Melinda and Melinda," seeming to be endlessly recycling the same old plots and characters. But then he began filming in Europe, and for the past half-dozen years, he has been on a roll. The roll began with the wickedly funny "Match Point" (2005), set in England, and hit a high point in 2008 with one of the director's most richly entertaining romantic comedies, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."

In the first half of his career, the "Woody Allen" role in Woody Allen movies was played by Woody Allen. No matter what the plot and setting, Allen was essentially the same character, a fast-quipping, insecure nerd with a sharply ironic, defensive sense of humor, a man who is too smart for his own good, who is immensely impractical and a doofus with women. A romantic pessimist.

Then, with John Cusack in "Bullets Over Broadway" (1994), Allen began casting other actors as Woody Allen, and his movies got a new jolt of energy that lasted through "Sweet and Lowdown" (1999), which starred Sean Penn as Woody Allen.

In "Midnight in Paris," Owen Wilson plays a Woody Allen who lives in a WASP suburb of Los Angeles and works as a successful writer of commercial screenplays. In his heart of hearts, though, this Woody Allen, like the original one -- see "Love and Death" (1975) -- wants to be a serious novelist. Unlike the original Woody Allen, this one probably surfs, but badly.

Wilson's character is named Gil, and he is in Paris with his beautiful, snobbish fiancee (Rachel McAdams) and her crass parents, who don't approve of the match their daughter is about to make. Gil falls in love with Paris, a romance his fiancee does not share. He finds himself alone one midnight, wandering the city's dark and winding, cobbled streets, when an enormous, ancient Peugeot rolls up and in the back seat are Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. (Alison Pill plays Zelda well, just on the irresistible side of out-of-control crazy.)

Thus begins a series of post-midnight journeys to the expatriate Paris of the 1920s, where Gil is astounded to meet, in addition to the Fitzgeralds, Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll, in an hilarious caricature), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates, also terrific), Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Salvador Dali (that zany Adrien Brody) and Cole Porter.

Gil falls in love with Picasso's wistful, sadly sentimental mistress (Marion Cotillard) and you pretty much suspect his wedding to that snooty American girl isn't going to work out.

The Paris of the Twenties is lovingly rendered by Allen and cinematographer Darius Khondji ("The City of Lost Children"), using to a great extent the Paris that still exists - that enduring quality is one of the reasons Gil and so many other Americans love Paris so. The first encounter with Hemingway makes for the best scene in the movie, as the pugnacious suburban Chicago boy who is not yet the grizzled celebrity known as Papa speaks of things that are brave and fine and true. At one point, Gil makes an observation about "Huckleberry Finn" that the great man is destined to remember and repeat as his own.

The movie never quite reaches the level of parodic genius Allen achieves in that first scene with Hemingway, but "Midnight in Paris" never loses its charm and sense of humor. And the cast -- which includes Carla Bruni, the First Lady of France, playing a museum guide -- injects a considerable amount of zest into the mix. They all seem to be having a lot of fun cavorting for Woody.

As for the question at the top of the review, "Play It Again, Sam" may have been written by Woody Allen, based on his own play, but it was directed by Herbert Ross, whose credits include "The Goodbye Girl." All the rest of the Woody Allen movies were directed by Woody Allen, who just keeps showing up, and who has got to be considered one of the greatest filmmakers alive.

Opened Friday, June 10

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, is a special contributor to the Beacon.

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement

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