No modern director works more consistently to produce high-quality entertainment than Woody Allen. But his work more often bogs down in his preoccupations than it transforms and transcends them.
The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, May 26, 2011. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.
The Six Worst Things About "Midnight in Paris": Why Woody Allen Isn't a Great Artist
Woody Allen's current film, "Midnight in Paris," is his most enjoyable work in many years. In it Allen captures his constant preoccupations -- mortality, time travel, the coreless, nebbish protagonist -- in a new and amusing way. Still, it -- like all of Allen's work -- falls short of great art. Here are six reasons:
1. The hero isn't heroic. Actually, Allen's films have gotten worse in this regard -- from his highly imaginative early works like Bananas and Take the Money and Run where, despite the films' surrealistic anticness, the main character is engaged in an heroic struggle. In "Paris," Owen Wilson is engaged to a woman he dislikes from a family he disrespects. That he needs to escape from their grasp is so self-evident from the start that there not only is no suspense to that effort, but viewers can't respect the character who is stuck in this predicament. Great art never mocks its own themes and characters. Charlie Chaplin's tramp, no matter how ridiculous he appears to be, is never less than heroic.
2. The supporting characters are unmotivated. It is often fun to see the array of more or less talented acters Allen has assembled for a wide range of supporting -- usually cameo -- appearances, where they serve as props for the main character's amusement and to fuel his ruminations on life and people. But they are obviously not real human beings. In "Paris," the subsidiary characters are -- even more than usual in Allen's films -- props and side shows.
3. Allen's self-conscious riffs about intellectuals get in the way. Allen is a brilliantly talented man who didn't graduate college and still hasn't gotten over it. He -- and his protagonists -- are preoccupied with "pseudo-intellectuals." But what is worse is that his own main character's idea of displaying his intellectual chops is to outdo the pedants in pedantry -- as though understanding and appreciating art were a matter of time-lining the artists' mistresses and wives. And, of course, the cameo appearances by the great artists of the twentieth century simply reinforce popular caricatures of each -- in "Paris," Allen's preoccupation with Hemingway as his own antithesis takes up way too much time and energy.
4. The hero can't love. Wilson, as the Allen stand-in, bests Hemingway in winning the love of his beautiful heroine. But the film has no real love scenes -- even Allen's love goddess is a prop for the Allen stand-in character. Compare this to Charlie Chaplin's classic films -- like "The Gold Rush," "City Lights," and "Modern Times." In the first two films, the Chaplin characters' hearts are broken by their unrequited longing for the beautiful women whose regard they cannot hope to obtain. In "Times," Chaplin creates a remarkable partnership with the Paulette Goddard character with whom he walks down the road at the film's end. Many years ago, the New York Psychoanalytic Society staged a film festival in which the "The Gold Rush" was shown. When the analyst who selected the film was questioned about his off-beat choice, he said: "When I was a youngster and I saw The Gold Rush, I laughed. When I was an adult and I saw it, I cried."
5. You can't summarize a great film in one sentence. Ironically, Owen Wilson's -- and "Paris"'s -- concluding insight is the same as the point that the pedant pseudo-intellectual first makes on hearing the theme for Wilson's novel -- that being lost in nostalgia for an unrealizable past is simply an escape from living in the present.
6. Allen's cityscape montages. The best thing about "Paris" -- as was also true of "Manhattan" -- are the cityscape montages of the two cities. Allen really loves Paris and New York, in a way he seemingly does not love people (Owen Wilson's love interest is the Paris of the 1920s), and viewing the snapshots is a tremendous pleasure. Great directors like John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock also use iconic scenes -- see Ford's use of Monument Valley in "The Searchers" and Hitchcock's use of Mount Rushmore in "North by Northwest." But they don't include these to savor the scenery -- the scenes of which they are a part are intimately connected to the plot and the main characters' lives and struggles. That is, the films are integrated wholes.
I apologize in advance to Woody Allen fans. It is great to have a contemporary director who is so seriously engaged in film-making and who tackles serious matters confronting society, the psyche, and the soul. I admire his dedication and constant work. I ony wish that Allen and his films could transcend their artistic limitations.