Those critics that keep writing that this or that new film from Woody Allen has brought the famed director back to form is living in the past. Yes, during the late '90s and early 2000s, Allen was not making his best work, but it's been six years since MATCH POINT (his best since 1989's CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS) and in between that and now we got VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA. With this film, Allen has returned to his whimsical comedy work like THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO.
Gil (Owen Wilson, BOTTLE ROCKET) is a successful screenwriter, who works on hack material. He has always wanted to write a novel, but has never had the guts. On vacation in Paris, he finds inspiration to start. His fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams, THE NOTEBOOK) worries that he's throwing away his lucrative career on a gamble. This would also throw away their house in Malibu. Tired of hanging out with Inez's pseudo-intellectual friend Paul (Michael Sheen, FROST/NIXON) and his clueless wife Carol (Nina Arianda, WIN WIN), Gil takes late-night walks and gets teleported back to the 1920s.
This fantastic journey is everything Gil could hope for because as he says, he was born too late. On his first night, he visits a party where Cole Porter (Yves Heck) is playing. Then he runs into F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston, THOR & Alison Pill, MILK), who turn out to be the lively and volatile couple he always imagined them to be. Later that evening, they introduce him to their friend Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll, SALT). Gil asks him to read his novel and Hemingway says he hates it before he even reads it, because if it is terrible he will hate it and if it is good, he'll be jealous and he'll hate it. So he recommends that his friend Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates, MISERY) read it.
At Stein's home, Gil meets Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo, THE MAN I LOVE), who is having an affair with the beautiful Adriana (Marion Cotillard, INCEPTION), who moved to Paris to design clothes with Coco Chanel. Gil finds her fascinating, but so does Hemingway. What does a guy do? Sit down in a café with surrealists Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody, THE PIANIST), Luis Bunuel (Adrien de Van, IN MY SKIN) and Man Ray (Tom Cordier) perhaps?
Gil finds inspiration in the past, but will he get trapped there… literally? He is always inexplicably brought back to the present where his strange behavior is questioned by Inez, who seems only interested in one thing from the past expensive antique furniture – and not Gil's silly manuscript about an owner of a nostalgia shop. Inez's father John (Kurt Fuller, WAYNE'S WORLD) actually hires a private investigator to follow Gil to see where he goes at night. This could be trouble because he's falling in love with a possible figment of his imagination.
This comedy certainly provides more laughs to those that are fans of literature and film. I'm not sure the average viewer would get the bit where Gil tells Luis Bunuel to make a film about rich people not being able to leave a dinner party and Bunuel not getting why they just don't walk out the door. But what makes this film so good is that it doesn't matter. It certainly rewards fans of art, but the characters are relatable. It's not uncommon for many people to believe that they would have been better suited living in an earlier "golden" age. Gil allows the viewer to live out that fantasy and experience the joys and pitfalls that it brings. As an artist Gil's trips to the past are inspiring, because great artists of the past are always inspiring to new artists. We live in their era every time we read their books or see their films or gaze upon their paintings.
This is certainly a lighter work from Allen, but it's one of his best lighter films. He finds another good conduit for his "Woody Allen" character in Wilson, who, whether conscious or not, takes on Allen tics in his performance. Allen, like Gil, might love the 1920s, but he's still making films that people of the early 21st century can relate to.