When choosing a good Woody Allen film and a bad Woody Allen film to review, I tend to use Rotten Tomatoes as a guide. But this time the consensus seems, to me, to be the wrong way round.
Shadows and Fog (1991)
Woody Allen always assembles the best casts, which this time includes Jodie Foster, John Malkovich, Mia Farrow… I could go on. And I will. Donald Pleasence, Kathy Bates, John Cusack… Oh and Madonna. Shadows and Fog is based on his play Death, and takes place over one night in a 1920s European city, where Allen’s fretful clerk is dragged into a murder mystery.
At the time, this was Allen’s most expensive film, thanks to the impressive set – the biggest ever built in New York. Taking place entirely at night, this set is brilliantly lit and shot in black and white. The camera explores its surroundings inquisitively, in one scene turning 360 degrees through a conversation That ’70s Show style. Which reminds me, Kurtwood Smith also pops up. The gloomy atmosphere means we only get to glimpse moments at a time, symbolically never revealing the full picture. Carlo Di Palma’s cinematography ensures that the film delivers on its title. Unlike Sinister, Insidious and Gravity.
It’s packed with homages, from Franz Kafka to Fritz Lang, none of which I got because I’m a dumb pleb. But it doesn’t matter, because Allen’s such a funny and endearing presence and it’s a joy whenever he’s on screen. I find myself laughing every time he opens his mouth, thanks to his trademark delivery and vocal ticks. His recurring frankness about sex and God return, and as in Sleeper – another tribute to the movies he loves – his character finds himself enlisted for a mission for which he’s totally unsuitable and unwilling. All this makes for an interesting drama which nicely balances comedy, homage and existentialism.
Midnight in Paris (2011)
20 years later comes this comedy/drama with plenty in common with Shadows and Fog. Both have an impressive ensemble cast including Kathy Bates, both centre around an engaged man who’s unhappy with his life, and both are full of 1920s references and tributes. But while these never got in the way in Shadows and Fog, they feel too forced in Midnight in Paris. Owen Wilson is an American writer on holiday in Paris with his fiancée (Rachel McAdams). When the clock strikes midnight, he’s whisked away to the 1920s, where he meets his heroes – including F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody).
This is Woody Allen’s love letter to Paris, which is adoringly photographed by Darius Khondji. It’s also a love letter to the 1920s, the costumes impeccably designed by Sonia Grande. The supporting cast do a good job, including Michael Sheen, Léa Seydoux and Carla Bruni, who is famously married to France. But the leads are altogether less charming, with Rachel McAdams and Owen Wilson bringing a misguidedly glamorous rom-com vibe to proceedings. She’s given such a horrible part it’s hard to see why anyone would want to marry her in the first place, while Owen Wilson takes on the role which Allen himself would once have played. His absence makes all the difference – for the worse. No one can do Woody Allen like Woody Allen, least of all Owen Wilson, who has none of his natural charm and rhythmic delivery. It’s probably not a fair criticism, but he’s not Woody Allen.
This makes it difficult to care about the character’s problem – that he’s tired of working on big Hollywood movies and wants to write a novel. And he’s engaged to Rachel McAdams. You poor man. Excuse me while I call an ambulance, because my heart won’t stop bleeding for you. To an extent this kind of problem is true of many Woody Allen movies, but again, his charm and hilarity in the lead roles makes it acceptable. But when it’s Owen Wilson, it’s just slightly irksome. As is the conceit – the homage aspect of Shadows and Fog blends seamlessly with the story. In Midnight in Paris we get these historical figures literally showing up and talking about their work, which lacks any subtlety and feels too contrived.
The jarring concept, charmless protagonist and subpar script makes this a recent disappointment in the Woody Allen oeuvre. It’s far from his worst – for instance, it’s infinitely more watchable than Match Point. But then so are most snuff films. Midnight in Paris is perfectly enjoyable but annoyingly pretentious and overly indulgent. Ultimately, there’s only so much I can take of rich people walking around and talking about Paris.