Last night, I went to watch Woody Allen’s latest directorial offering, the Owen Wilson comedy Midnight in Paris. It’s a sweetly conceived movie that adds a time-traveling twist to the ‘imagined results of lots of famous people being in the same place at once’ genre (other examples: Travesties – Stoppard, Tom, and Picasso at the Lapin Agile – Martin, Steve). Wilson plays struggling Francophile writer Gil Pender, on a trip to his beloved Paris with his fiancé and her parents. And he is, indeed, struggling: struggling with his novel about a man who runs a nostalgia shop, struggling with the realities of life with his shrewish wife-to-be Inez, struggling with his need to become a serious writer and escape the perceived shallowness of writing for Hollywood. In the course of all this struggle, as he wanders around Paris one evening, he is transported back to an idealized Paris of the 1920s, where he meets such figures as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and more, and returns there every night to rub shoulders with his dead heroes – and fall in love with the ever-enchanting Marion Cotillard as well, here disguised as a French flapper named Adrianna.
As long as it’s nighttime – midnight being the time that Gil is transported away to cavort with the Lost Generation – the movie is quite charming, alternating between delightful characterizations of dead artists and the developing love story between Gil and Adrianna. Allen’s affection for all the figures concerned is clear, and his lampooning of them is charming and amusing. It is when we return to reality that the movie loses its way, because with the exception of Wilson’s Gil (really just a toned-down stand-in for the character that Allen himself would have played back in the seventies, and probably also in the nineties) it’s clear that Allen has nothing but contempt for any of his other characters. Inez, Inez’s parents, Inez’s friends Paul and Carol: they are, collectively, a group of joyless upper-middle-class pseudo-intellectuals who have lost the capacity to dream. They are also a springboard for the expository demon that is the most noxious characteristic of Allen’s movies, as he can’t resist sprinkling his dialogue with a few political jabs.
I’ve complained about Allen’s movies in the past, often to friends who regard him as a genius and can only stare at me incredulously. Admittedly, I haven’t seen many of them – six total, and one of those (Play It Again, Sam)was his writing but not his direction. Regardless: for a long time I attributed my general discomfort with Allen’s movies to his personal lack of charisma. Both Annie Hall and Manhattan I thought were good in spite of Allen, his archetypal neurotic, self-conscious, over-intellectual Jew a character that I always found annoying and not particularly funny. That also explained why I could have enjoyed Match Point as much as I did – there’s not a whiff of Allen anywhere.
After Midnight in Paris, I’m not so sure about that anymore. By which I mean, yes, I do find that Allen character, and Allen as an actor, insufferably annoying. The problem is more fundamental, though, and it’s embodied perfectly in what I found so discomfiting in Midnight in Paris: Woody Allen doesn’t really like people. A case in point: late in Annie Hall, in one of the film’s most famous scenes, a lamenting Alvy walks down a street in New York soliciting opinions about what went wrong in his relationship with Annie. He approaches one attractive couple and asks how they account for being happy. The woman responds, “I’m very shallow and empty, I don’t have any ideas, and I have nothing interesting to say”; her companion quickly adds, “And I’m exactly the same way.” The scene is clearly meant to be funny, and, indeed, it is (immediately before approaching the couple, an older man tells Alvy that he and his wife use ‘a large, vibrating egg’ to stimulate their sex lives). Beneath the play for laughs, though, is a breathtaking cynicism about how people live their lives and love their partners.
Even this doesn’t fully capture the problem, though; many great artists have had little compassion for humanity, and artists that do have such compassion are often guilty of the even greater crime of sentimental schlock. The problem is that, in so clearly expressing his disdain, as he does in Midnight in Paris, Allen denies people interiority and, thereby, he denies them any existence as individuals. They become a class of others who are of their nature opposed to him, their opinions laughable, their habits ridiculous, their concerns mind-bogglingly banal. This in turn powers what is so infuriating about what I would call the ‘priestliness’ of Allen’s films, which is that they are intellectually bankrupt. Allen or his stand-in makes a comment about politics, or art, or religion, and speaking in response is some meat-head troglodyte or narrow-minded shrew. The intellectual content of a Woody Allen film is an exercise in assembling straw men. It also suggests a reason that people enjoy his movies, which is that people who agree with Allen on the issues he likes to sermonize about get to have a laugh at the expense of people they don’t agree with.
All this throws focus on why it’s so hard to recognize Allen’s fingerprints in Match Point, and, indeed, why I appreciate it so much more than his other movies. It isn’t that Allen has suddenly developed compassion for the group represented in the film: Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s Chris aspires to the same sort of upper-middle-class lifestyle that Inez’s family embodies, and that aspiration is at the root of the ugliness that the film portrays. The difference is that, for the first time, Allen commits himself to inhabiting the body of the sort of person that in his other films would be relegated to cutout status. To be sure, Chris is loathsome – but he’s loathsome in the same way that Michael Corleone is, loathsome but also full, complex, human. It is the other characters (all of them, really) that are the victims, rather than the protagonist, which is an utter inversion of Allen’s usual construction, and one that allows the audience to take their complexities and interiorities seriously. And, because it’s not a comedy, there’s no basis for Allen to throw in his usual didactic pedantry, which is so much the better.
Maybe what that means is that the comedy genre simply isn’t where Allen should be trying to make movies, because comedy allows greater license for the sort of approach to humanity that Allen takes too far. Some months ago, I wrote of Annie Hall that it was that rare sort of comedy that ‘didn’t need to be funny to be good,’ that it allowed itself to be about something and thereby, against all odds, succeeded. Rearrange and rephrase that and you get why I find Allen’s films hard to stomach: he doesn’t allow his characters to be about anything. That would be (more) fine if he were making summer blockbusters, where conflict is painted in the broad strokes of good and evil. As he long as he claims to make movies that are about people, though, it can’t be anything but a fatal flaw.