Gil and Inez are on a trip to Paris, tagging along with her parents. It’s evident from the start that their personalities clash. He is a successful Hollywood screenwriter in the middle of writing his first original novel. Gil (Owen Wilson) finds the French capital exceptional; his new surroundings offer a serenity that escapes him back in California. She on the other hand, can’t get home fast enough. Inez (Rachel McAdams) scoffs at her fiancé’s new occupational wishes. She sees their future enveloped in established luxury and celebrity; a move to Malibu is in the works.
During a discussion of conflicting politics, dinner is interrupted by Paul and Carol, friends of Inez. Paul is played by Michael Sheen. Sheen has a history of portraying clever characters; here, he is merely a pseudo-intellectual, claiming expertise in every field imaginable. To Gil’s chagrin, a time for exploration is taken up by Paul prattling on about the differing aromas of French red wines, or the false history of Rodin’s love life. Inez possesses a misguided infatuation for Paul. Though Gil has plenty to offer, she quickly shushes him. “Maybe you’ll learn something,” she hisses. McAdams plays the necessary and unfortunate evil here, and does it well. Eventually, while everyone else is in the mood for dancing, Gil instead walks around the city, finally stopping at an nondescript staircase. As a nearby clocks chimes midnight, an old-fashioned car pulls up and a stranger beckons Gil inside.
They arrive at a party filled with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald; later a bar where they bump into Ernest Hemingway–idols of Gil, and ours alike. Director Woody Allen doesn’t attempt to explain this time-traveling phenomenon. We are simply transported back to the 1920’s, as easily as that. Owen Wilson’s Gil is the film’s quintessential “Woody” character. There’s one in every Allen film, but through his endearing mannerisms and awkward delivery, Wilson seems to depict it most naturally. His reactions to meeting these famous artists are charmingly refreshing, almost childlike. After he calls it a night, he lies awake in his hotel room, mumbling to himself, not truly believing what has transpired.
Like Gil, I myself was completely captivated with what transpired. In subsequent nights, Gil acquaints himself with Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) who agrees to read his novel. He gets life advice from Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody) and Man Ray; visits with Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter and “Tom Elliot.” While in Stein’s apartment he meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard) a bewitchingly beautiful would-be costume designer. She has bedded Braque and Modigliani, before moving onto Picasso. “You give new meaning to an artist groupie,” Gil quips. Still, Adriana provides a spark that is missing in his life. The feelings felt between the two are mutual, but as usual, a temporal anomaly gets in the way. Perhaps in another time.
The camera enticingly captures Paris at its best. This is the first film that Allen has shot here in its entirety, and is one of the finest works of his long and illustrious career. Through his clever words and resplendent eye, we tag along through an abridged journey of the “Golden Age.” I wish we had more time with Hemingway, listening to him passionately speak, puffing out his chest, spouting machismo (“It was a good book, because it was an honest book, and that’s what war does for men. And there’s nothing fine and noble about dying in the mud, unless you die gracefully. And then, it’s not only noble, but brave.”); or observe Stein and Picasso bicker back-and-forth in a multitude of languages about the true meanings of his peculiar paintings. A particularly funny moment happens when Gil attempts to explain his curious situation to Dali and his fellow surrealists.
We have the tendency to label things as magical when they’re unique or foreign to us. People, places and objects that differ from our daily lives allow us a glimpse through the looking glass; an excuse to question past decisions that altered our path. This can lead to us forgetting how we got there in the first place. It’s only when we step back however, that we truly realize that the things that matter most to us are perhaps closer than we initially thought.