Monday, June 20, 2011

The Witching Well

I was conflicted about this movie from the start.

I've been slow to warm to Woody Allen, despite the enthusiasm of a movie-loving friend who has long sung his praises. While I appreciate that he has made a career of celebrating New York City on film--which remains my favorite single place on earth--I can never shake the conviction that he is making exactly the same movie over and over and over (and over and over) again, with the same characters and the same shots and the same soundtrack and the same titles and largely the same plot. I'm all in favor of a person knowing their limitations and with fine nuances wrought from a restricted palette, but I can't help thinking that he's taken this concept to extremes.

And yet if you do it often enough the formula is bound to yield some really engaging stuff (like me shooting a zillion unschooled shots with my iPhone camera; there are bound to be some great pictures in there--not that my photography non-skills have any business being compared to one of history's greatest filmmakers): Manhattan, with its paean to the City (and its Gershwin soundtrack); I loved Vicki Christina Barcelona; Zelig was fun; Mighty Aphrodite. Looking over his filmography, I realize I've seen only about a quarter of what he's done, and the list includes some really noteworthy films (and many things which are frankly above my pay grade to even attempt to critique).

But his new film is about Paris, which detail will in itself cause me to forgive many a sin or faux-pas.

Owen Wilson plays Gil Pender, a writer on a vacation to Paris with his fianceƩ Inez (Rachel McAdams). Gil is absolutely infatuated with Paris and especially with the magical decade of the '20s when so many luminaries from the worlds of art and music and poetry and literature were congregated there. Inez shares none of his enthusiasm for the city (or its past luminaries), thinking him romantic and unrealistic. While she and Gil are having lunch one day they run into one of her old college friends (Paul, played by Michael Sheen), a pompous blowhard who absolutely captures Inez's fancy. And so the couple are soon pretending that nothing is wrong while pursuing completely different lives on their vacation, but it gets Inez out of the picture so that Gil can have his adventure.

I feel as though to say more than this is to give away the charming and intriguing detail that is really the cornerstone of the film (Wikipedia has no such qualms if you don't mind the spoiler). But the success of the film rests on the beauty and magic of the city and on the unspoken intriguing detail more than on the strength of the story or its main present-day protagonists.

And in fact the film feels a bit like Allen is skating along, cushioned by the formula he has spent his career creating. All his characters here are drawn almost as caricatures, as personality archetypes which Allen has placed each in their own pigeonhole: asshole conservative; ugly American tourist; rich, snotty woman; nervous, yammering Woody-Allen-like Jewish protagonist; misunderstanding spouse; famous artist. I was watching Anthony Minghella's The English Patient (a film with which I remain unrepentantly enamored) last night and I can't help contrasting the subtleties with which the characters are made, both in the writing and in how the performances are captured. There is little subtle about Allen's characters here--any of them--while Minghella's characters are a symphony of small details and gestures and expressions.

And yet despite this Allen had me at hello. Because it's Paris. I haven't been to Paris for over four years, but the film's opening shots (so beautifully captured by DP Darius Khondji) give us so many familiar and characteristic scenes from the world's most picturesque city that it feels like being there. I would gladly have paid the admission for two hours of that and come back for more. Allen revisits these scenes intermittently as the story progresses and never forgets where he is.

But (my love of the place notwithstanding) I cannot pretend that the setting, however brilliantly captured, makes for a great film. I enjoyed watching Midnight in Paris and the film keeps one guessing quite enough to ward off any looming boredom. But I can't bring myself to give it a stronger public embrace than that.

Grade: B

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