Movie Meringues

by Hasan Altaf

ParisIt seems like everyone I speak to has loved Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and the reviews have also been generally glowing. My search for someone who shared my less rapturous feeling has so far been largely fruitless, and at this point I am beginning to think that there might be something wrong not with the movie, but with me. Midnight in Paris seemed to me kind of like a meringue: Light, harmless, and not entirely satisfying.

There is of course nothing at all wrong with meringues; they are what they are, and the kind of film that one enjoys while watching and then forgets about also serves a purpose. This is the land of summer comedies (Bad Teacher), the new crop of identical, CGI-enhanced superhero movies (take your pick), and even the vast majority of Bollywood. None of these genres, though, is greeted with the kind of rave reviews that Midnight in Paris has garnered.

Beyond the fact of Paris, the film has three things, as far as I can see, working in its favor. The music and the cinematography are undeniably great, but most of us don’t, in the end, watch movies for the cinematography or the music – at the Oscars, these are the categories we tend to glaze over, not recognizing any of the names, although we can appreciate their accomplishments when we see or hear them. On their own, these two feats don’t seem to merit the kind of reaction that the film has received.

The real selling point of Midnight in Paris is the conceit: The idea of the unexpected opportunity for a modern-day man to visit, each night, an era that he has always in some sense longed for, to rub shoulders with his idols, to sit across the table and be bored to tears by geniuses in the flesh. It’s a charming idea, a what-if game brought to life, and it’s hard to resist; it allows the audience to imagine themselves in that scenario, to wonder what it would happen if we could visit the periods of history that have enchanted each of us and meet whoever it was we always wanted to hang out with.

The conceit, though, seems more naturally to belong in a skit, or a series of brief clips; the closest analogy that came to mind for me was something like a French and Saunders routine (for example, their parody of Mamma Mia!, which can be seen here) – a smaller, more flexible environment, in any case. A frame story – and not a particularly interesting frame story, as such things go – seems to have been hastily constructed around this device in order to justify a full-length feature film. What we wanted, as viewers, was to run around with F. Scott Fitzgerald, be annoyed by Ernest Hemingway, and watch Gertrude Stein give Picasso a dressing-down; I find it difficult to imagine that anyone in the theater particularly cared about what happened to Owen Wilson and his fiancée.

I think many of the other problems of Midnight in Paris could also be blamed on the frame story, including the entirely unnecessary epiphany: The “point” of Owen Wilson’s story was obvious from the moment the movie began, and it was essentially uninteresting. Gill’s time-traveling romance also felt like an unnecessary addition designed to give the film a little bit more plot, to keep it from being just a series of set pieces – which is, I think, what it really wanted to be – and in some cases, there is nothing really wrong with set pieces. Stretching something that wants to be a vignette into a novel never pays off; similarly, building a feature film around a set piece does both a disservice.

The intent of Midnight in Paris made me think of Paris, je t’aime (which for some reason I always remember as París, te quiero), which presented short films by several different directors, each set in a different part of the city. Midnight in Paris could easily have been part of that project, or a similar one, building a whole out of parts. Paris, je t’aime could have included visits to different times in the city’s history, or another movie could have done with history what Paris, je t’aime did with geography. Allen's movie is at heart a love letter to the city; Paris, je t'aime was too, but it was a love letter that made a little more sense.

So what is it that sets Midnight in Paris apart from the other meringues? Maybe it speaks to something different than most movies, and I think also allows for something more personal than harmless entertainment or escapism or vicarious thrills; everyone, after all, has some form of Gill Pender’s nostalgia. Personally, though, I found myself wishing Woody Allen would just set up a YouTube channel, so he could have cut away the excess of the movie and focused on its strengths. Because sometimes what you want is indeed a meringue. If you have that meringue with a bowl of cereal, though, neither one is as good.