Whether you're of the crowd that hears "new Woody Allen film" and thinks Oh God please make him stop or those who think Even bad Woody is worth seeing, or somewhere in between, you're probably aware that Midnight in Paris is a hit. I think it's a lighter, sketchier work than Vicky Cristina Barcelona (if you hated that movie, you're reading the wrong blog) but I loved it - whatever its flaws, the word "delightful," all retro associations intended, is what comes to mind.
The pleasures of Midnight stem from a very simple premise, and the less you know about it going in, the better, but some spoilage ahead is unavoidable in talking about a wonderful gag that comes in the middle of the movie.
Owen Wilson, who plays the Woody-surrogate protagonist this time out, has been vexed by an academic pedant (Michael Sheen) vying for the attentions of his fiancee, played by Rachel McAdams, and finally, when they come upon a Picasso in a Parisian museum, Owen has the rare opportunity to put this pompous a-hole in his place. He tops his rival's discourse with an eloquent critique of his own - so detailed and insightful that for once, the pretentious professor is rendered speechless.
How did Owen do it? Well, as a recent time-traveler to Paris in the '20s, he just happened to have actually been there, the night Pablo first showed his freshly painted canvas to Gertrude Stein.
Even before I stopped laughing at the slack-jawed look on Sheen's face (along with an audience that included, funnily enough, the Woodman's contemporary Paul Mazurksy, a few seats over, having a ball) a little bell went off in my head. I realized that, much as the very conceit of Midnight has links to Allen's short story "The Kugelmass Episode," among other precedents, what we'd just seen on screen was a variation on one of the most famous and beloved gags in the Allen canon:
Some might say this isn't legitimately a "great moment in romantic comedy," given that the gag itself has little to do with rom-com high jinks, beyond its setup (i.e. Alvy Singer is in a bad mood because he and Annie Hall are having a terrible fight). I say, who cares? It's genius.
But not to get all academic pretentious pedantic on this stuff, since you might reach for a large sock filled with horse manure, I'll argue that one of the joys of romantic comedy, when done well, is how adept it is in talking to the culture about little (but often profound) intimate truisms - facts of the human condition that this character-driven genre consistently tends to highlight.
Annie Hall is chock full of such moments: scenes, visual riffs and witty lines that speak to us of things we know about relationship, gender, and simply being human that we hadn't been able to previously articulate, ourselves. A good rom-com is having a conversation with its contemporaries, and a great one - such as Annie Hall - speaks to the ages.
Proof of the pudding lies in Midnight in Paris's relexive homage, be it conscious or un (the auteur's prerogative) to the kind of "Boy, wouldn't I love to be able to tell this schmuck off!" experience immortalized in Alvy Singer's magical fetching of Marshall McLuhan to make his case.
We've all been there, facing a know-it-all who needs to be put in his place. Having Midnight in Paris to provide a new wish fulfillment fantasy of How Sweet Getting Even Could Be is delicious. But having that scene from Annie Hall as the timelessly definitive version to savor...?