I was pleased to find that, unlike this review (SPOILER ALERT) the trailers for the movie did not give away it's most charming aspects. Going in, I thought it would be a simple romantic comedy, with Owen Wilson cheating in Paris. It was much more whimsical than that and the unexpected fantasy made the movie for me.
Writer Gil is visiting Gay Paree with his petulant fiance Inez and her parents. He's charmed and inspired by their surroundings and they are perenially unimpressed, complaining so much that you'd think they were vacationing in the slums of North Paris, rather than eating, shopping and relaxing in the city's most expensive, exclusive environs. For Inez and her folks, the only thing french worth noting is ennui.
It's not unusual to wonder how a couple ever got together in a movie, but usually as the pairing dissolves, one of the partner's evolves and outgrows the relationship before your eyes. For instance, Captain Von Trapp was snooty and rigid himself. When we first meet him, he and The Baroness aren't actually that ill-suited. Maria changes father and children alike, creating the widening chasm between him and his intended, as we watch. Here, Gil doesn't change or grow much. He's a fairly reasonable person to begin with and is never unaware that Inez and is never unaware of the conflict between him and Inez's social set. He's just too indifferent about the clash to see any reason not to spend the rest of his life with them.
He needles and insults her right wing father and takes occasional pleasure in contradicting her know-it-all friend Paul, but ultimately seems content to have his life ruled and ridiculed by people who neither like nor respect him, just to preserve his engagement to Inez, which he never seems all that passionate about. He's the one with the money, so he's not with her for fortune or status. He finds her sexy, but surely he could find an attractive woman more in tune with his personality, if he cared enough to bother. The fact that he doesn't makes it hard for the audience to care. If he finds his own happiness a negligible commodity, I'm certainly not going to root for him find it.
During their trip, Inez runs into friends Paul and Carol who are as eager to disdain Gil as she and her parents are. They spend their at wine-tastings and museums, making Gil's flaws and Paul's superiority the chief subject of their conversations. Gil is a hack Hollywood writer, who's become rich penning mindless comedies, but longs to produce something of literary value, walking the historic streets of Paris only inspire him more.
Inez finds his aspirations foolish. She can imagine nothing more worthless than a great, but non-commercial, author and can't wait to return home to start shopping for a new home in Malibu. She's not unintelligent, just uninterested.
Over Gil's objections, Inez insists on discussing the plot of Gil's nascent novel with her friends. It's about a guy who runs a nostalgia shop. Nostalgia? Paul scoffs. People who love nostalgia are only trying to escape their present day inadequacies. They delude themselves into thinking that the Golden Era was better only because they have trouble coping in today's world. Inez promptly agrees with Paul's condescending assessment of both Gil's book and his interests, happy she's found someone as erudite as Paul to join in her dismissal of Gil's dreams.
Had Gil and Inez been married, the way she mocks and patronizes him in front of others would be grounds for divorce. Yet, her scathing manner never causes Gil to question the relationship. Had he been intimidated or insecure, perhaps we would see his complacency as a form of fear and self-doubt. But though malleable, Gil is not particularly meek or uncertain. Apparently, he stays with Inez and her gang just because he's lazy. Still, even sloth has its strong points.
One evening out with Inez, Paul and Carol, Gil declares himself too tired and tipsy to go dancing with them. He stays behind and attempts to stumble his way back to the hotel on foot. As he rests against a stoop, a vintage Peugeot turns in front of him and beckons him to get in. As the car hurtles down the street, I find myself wishing that it would carry Gil right into the past that he so often dreams about -- to my surprise, that's exactly what happens.
As Gil's new, lively friends pull him into a whirlwind party they're attending, we soon discover that they are none other than Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. That cool piano player who somehow knows all of the forgotten verses to Let's Do It turns out to be none other than Cole Porter himself. As he meets one legend after the other, Gil is mesmerized, but he's not just thrilled to be mingling with the great. These people embrace him with an effortless acceptance that he's never received from present day peers. It's not long before, buddy Ernest Hemingway is offering to have Gertrude Stein read and critique Gil's novel for him.
When a heady Gil stumples back into his own life, he's anxious to have Inez meet his new friends. He concludes that the place where he hopped aboard the Peugeot is a time portal and takes Inez there the following evening. When nothing happens, Inez grows impatient and leaves. As the Paris clock strikes midnight, Gil realizes that, as in all fairy tales, that's the hour when magic happens. Now that he knows the trick of getting there, Gil returns regularly, night after night, rubbing elbows with Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, T. S. Eliot and finally falling for Adriana, a young model who is chased by Picasso and Hemingway but is herself enchanted by Gil.
Reading between the lines of his novel, Gertrude Stein uncovers a truth that has been eluding Gil: the Inez character in his book is having an obvious affair with the pedantic professor (Paul's counterpart). Eureka! Upon making this discovery, Gil is even more eager to pursue Adriana.
As Gil and Adriana explore their romance and enjoy a night on the town in the roaring twenties, a horse and carriage trundles towards them, beckoning. Once they climb in, they are whisked off into Paris in the gay nineties. By this time, the voyage back is passe for Gil and he wants to spend more time talking to Adriana than watching original Moulin Rouge performances. But she's awestruck and declares she wants to stay in the past. That's when life was wonderful, the 1890s -- even though the people they meet from that era declare it to be a disappointing generation. Gil is also unenthused. He insists that the 1920s, Adriana's time, was the true renaissance. Adriana finds this view absurd. The 20s are positively dull and uninspiring. She tells Gil she refuses to return to them. In that case . . . they bid adieu.
Gil comes to the realization that Paul was right. People fantasize about the past and project their own desires onto it to compensate for their unhappiness in the present. Having faced this realization, Gil returns to his own time, determined to fulfill his dreams there, not chasing the past. A new man, he breaks it off with Inez, a move that comes too late and for the wrong reasons. If he needed time travel to realize that they were incompatible, then he's too much of a dunce for me to have just wasted 100 minutes with him.
In the end, I loved the film's flights of fancy. Whenever I am in a historic setting, I always have this secret wish that I can close my eyes and awake in the past. Any movie that touches upon this fantasy will capture me today, just as Cinderella's ball gown did when I was small. Dreams that come true at midnight are as fun now as spells that end at the stroke of midnight once were. But a glance at Aesop's work will tell you there was nothing particularly original about Allen's script.
I found it fairly light on wit and it's whimsy, though lovely, could not entirely make up for the unabsorbing characters -- or character types -- the movie presented. Gil was the least unpleasant, but not the least frustrating. Moreover, I don't agree with the premise that we chase the past because we're unhappy with the present. Gil never expressed an unhealthy obsession with the past. Rather he expressed curiousity stemming from an appreciation of literature. By setting his own novel in a nostalgia shop, he in no way hinted at a single-minded infatuation with dead generations. He was not a man out of touch with reality and, therefore, Paul's diagnosis of Gil's innocent interest seemed mere folderol, not a viewpoint that Woody's narrative, and Gil himself, would eventually adopt as their own.
I think the past shapes, informs and haunts the present. When we investigate it, we study ourselves and give the present deeper meaning. It would be unwise to get lost in the past. Yet, we're lost without it. Those who have no interest in what came before are, like Inez, bringing little to the future. While the love Gil had for Adriana may have been illusion or delusion, his kinship with the artists of yore was real -- or should have been.