June 8 2011 12:00 AM

Woody Allen is back on track in Paris


Beguiling romantic fantasy is his best film in years

When it comes to comebacks, Woody Allen
could probably teach Cher, Britney Spears and even Lazarus a few lessons
by now. Every time it seems the astonishingly prolific but
frustratingly inconsistent writer-director has finally run out of
surprises, he conjures up something like "Midnight in Paris," a
delirious romantic fantasy thats like cinematic champagne,
effervescent, and intoxicating.

"Paris" finds Allen returning to the
delicately whimsical tone of his mid-1980s masterpieces "Zelig" and "The
Purple Rose of Cairo" and his underrated 1990 urban fairy tale "Alice,"
in which a dispirited Mia Farrow wandered into New Yorks ethereal

In "Paris," Owen Wilson plays Gil, a
successful screenwriter who yearns to be a novelist in Paris instead of a
Hollywood hack-for-hire in a Malibu mansion. His blonde, bland fiancee,
Inez (Rachel McAdams, putting enough snappy sass into the role to give
it some needed zip), is mystified by his daydreams about the City of
Light in the Jazz Age. The insufferably pompous intellectual Paul (a
priceless Michael Sheen) is equally unsympathetic and diagnoses Gil with
"golden age thinking," the starry-eyed belief that living in another
time would have been preferable to plodding through the present.

Gil will eventually find a kindred spirit
in Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who tells him that "the past has always
had a great charisma for me." A model who specializes in playing house
with celebrity artists, Adriana immediately bewitches Gil. She seems to
have worked the same spell on Allen, who photographs Cotillard like the
doe-eyed, moon-faced 1930s Joan Crawford, before she transformed herself
into a steely superwoman. Bathed in copper-colored light and speaking
in a voice like morning mist, Cotillard further confirms what
"Inception" suggested: Shes the ultimate dreamgirl.

While Wilson will never be known as an
actor of extraordinary range or depth, he knows how to use his easygoing
attitude to his advantage, as hes recently shown as the bed-hopping
baseball player in director James L. Brooks "How Do You Know" and the
not-so-hot-blooded suburban dad in "Hall Pass."

Ever since Allen stepped down as the
leading man in most of his films, he has been accused of trying to
shoehorn his male stars into "the Woody Allen role" as the neurotic,
cerebral, witty guy. If thats whats happening here, Wilson carries
that mantle much more easily than most of his predecessors. Although Gil
is a quintessential hopeless romantic whos every bit as enraptured by
Paris as Allen used to be with the majesty of Manhattan — "I can see
myself strolling along the boulevard with a baguette under my arm!" he
excitedly tells the utterly blase Inez — Wilson gives the character a
sweet sincerity that offsets his flakiness. When Gil finds himself
confronted by the tantalizing possibility of realizing all his
ambitions, the wondrous look in Wilsons eyes makes it impossible not to
cheer him on. 

Arriving barely nine months after Allens
limp "You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger," which even his most devoted
fans found difficult to defend, "Paris" is a beguiling turnaround,
throwing out the arch, starchy dialogue that has hobbled too many of
Allens recent films and recapturing the joy and comic electricity that,
outside of "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," hasnt surfaced very often in
his output during the last decade.

Allens films have almost always been
scored with the jazz and big-band sounds of the 1920s and 1930s, which
hints that "golden age thinking" might be a condition hes been
afflicted with for years. If that inspires him to create more gems like
"Midnight in Paris," however, lets hope theres no cure for the

Midnight in Paris
Opening Friday at Celebration Cinema
200 E. Edgewood Blvd., Lansing
(517) 393-7469