15 June 2011

Where Are We Going?

Woody Allen strives to make us laugh.  Yes, he's made a handful of morose films (particularly his Ingmar Bergman phase), but in his soul, he's a comedian.  Allen's success rate in evoking risibility is about the same as Dirk Nowitzki's free-throw percentage.  Typically, his vehicles are subversive word-play, exposure of personal and institutional hypocrisy, and portrayal of sexual congress whose intimacy is akin to a handshake.

Allen's cinematic greatness, however, lies in his uncanny ability to tap into a subtext whose lessons can be universally applied.  They're very basic lessons:  just because the grass looks greener on the other side...it isn't, appreciate what you have, read books, take walks after dinner, God doesn't care and/or probably doesn't exist, don't hurt people.  Sometimes though, his conceits are better merely as a concept than as a financed film.  Case in point, his latest European world-city venture, Midnight In Paris.

In theory, it seems like the perfect Woody Allen film.  Place a typical Allen hero into the eternal city of love, and let the city's magic unfurl upon him.  After New York, Barcelona, and London, surely the most romantic city in the world, a capital of high culture and art, would inspire Allen to majestic heights.  Instead, he delivered a ho-hum Woody Allen version of Back To The Future.  In place of Bobby socks, Studebakers, and Rock N Roll, we get Cloche hats, Isotta-Fraschinis, and The Lost Generation.

Having Owen Wilson (as Woody Allen's cinematic avatar) cavort around 1920s Paris with Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Stein, and the rest is fun, but where is it going?  The joke of Wilson's character inspiring a young Luis Buñuel's absurdism was funny...when it was done to perfection in Back To The Future and Chuck Berry and Rock N Roll.

Feature films by legendary directors surely must be more than exercises in whimsical wish fulfillment.  In Radio Days (1987), Allen similarly looked back to the halcyon days of his youth in 1940s Brooklyn and the vitality of radio culture.  It was a whimsical picture, but it was sweet and nostalgic and had heart.  Midnight In Paris, I'm afraid, is sweet, but it openly mocks nostalgia and rushes way too quickly past the heart, or the point for that matter.  

Yes, Woody Allen wants to make us laugh, unfortunately with Midnight In Paris, he spent all his energies on the elaborate set-up, but left out the most important part of the joke:  the punchline.