Gil idealizes Paris of the 1920s, much to the consternation of Inez, who is more interested in their future home in Malibu. Gil's frustration is exacerbated by the appearance of Paul (Michael Sheen) and Carol (Nina Arianda), a pair of intellectual blowhards who Inez fawns over (and is, perhaps, a bit too drawn towards). One night, Gil decides to walk home while Paul, Inez, and Carol go dancing, and finds himself lost in Paris. As the clock strikes midnight, a strange car pulls up and its passengers beckon the would-be novelist to join them.
And this is where I hesitate to go further. It's not as though you couldn't find out for yourself what the "gimmick" or "twist" is, so to speak, but even knowing where Gil goes and who he meets doesn't properly convey how delightful Midnight in Paris is. I thought I understood where the film was going from speaking to friends, but Allen constructs the narrative in such a way that as it unfolds you become more invested in the parallel stories - Gil's adventures after midnight and the increasingly evident cracks in his relationship with Inez, many of which are so fundamental that one wonders how they ever got so far.
By necessity, I'm going to warn you off from anything after this point by slapping a big SPOILER warning. I want to talk about Gil's midnight adventures, and in particular a second layer late in the film that pushed the conceit further along, so be advised. From here on out I'm going to mention specifics about who Gil meets, how I thought it was going to impact the story, and why Midnight in Paris is smart enough to push forward beyond a simple "appreciate what you have" story.
SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT SO DON'T SAY I DIDN'T WARN YOU
So I don't want to talk too much about how Gil interacts with the Fitzgeralds (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill) or Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) or Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), or the procession of cameos for Cole Porter (Yves Heck), Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), Buñuel (Adrian de Van), Dali (Adrien Brody), or Joséphine Baker (Sonia Rolland), which are admittedly fun but secondary to the main part of the "Gil in the 1920s" parts of the film. The initial encounters, particularly the look on Owen Wilson's face when he meets Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, are understated comedy, but the real meat of that portion of the film is his budding relationship with Adrianna (Marion Cotillard), a woman drawn to Picasso, Hemingway, and eventually Gil.
My initial understanding of Midnight in Paris was that only the first twenty or so minutes took place in the present, so I was pleasantly surprised to see Allen move Gil back and forth through time. At first it's unclear whether this is really happening or just in Gil's mind, but as the film pushes forward one begins to understand that this is not imaginary - first Gil finds a diary in a Parisian market that belonged to Adrianna (as we discover in a moment where he finds a woman who can translate while Gil sits on a park bench). Later, after Inez's father becomes suspicious of Gil's late night activity, Allen explicitly shows us what happens to a private detective hired to follow the American in a comic aside that says "this is real."
All of the "1920s" moments are fun and provide some of the better laughs in Midnight in Paris, not limited to Gil's explanation to Zelda Fitzgerald of what Valium is, or Dali's obsession with the rhinoceros, or the way that The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie figures into a conversation between the time traveler and a young Buñuel. The Surrealists' reaction to Gil's predicament (and how he responds) was another highlight, and I must admit that the bluster of Hemingway made me chuckle.
The transitions and how they affect Gil would, under normal circumstances, fit into a Wizard of Oz / Alice in Wonderland sort of narrative where the protagonist learns what they really wanted all along was right in front of them, so I appreciate that Allen puts that "lesson" in the mouth of Paul, the least likable character in the film. We like Gil, and we want Paul to be wrong, so even when Stein and Hemingway reinforce that position, it's hard to accept what should be a standard movie trope.
It's not until Gil and Adriana go walking in Paris at night that Allen throws another wrinkle into the story - Adriana, like Gil, wants to belong to a different time (in this case, the 1890s), and as they sit in a 1920s cafe, a horse drawn carriage pulls up and they are whisked off to the Belle Époque and the Moulin Rouge. It wasn't that his deciding to leave was unexpected, but her decision to stay I found to be very interesting. It's a telling moment that distinguishes their view of the world, although to keep the narrative from being too pat one could argue that Gil doesn't stay in the 1920s because he also feels daunted by the literary competition.
Ultimately I found myself quite charmed by Midnight in Paris, not simply because it was a return to form for Woody Allen but because the film was so damned enjoyable. It's clever without being cloy, familiar without being obvious, and light without being inconsequential. And it's funny in unexpected ways. In most hands Midnight in Paris could be a thuddingly obvious sort of film, a great premise with a leaden message, but Woody Allen brings whimsy to the movie and raises it up another level. It's easily one of the best films I've seen this year, and not one I was expecting to enjoy so much when it came out.