It’s Woody Allen with a dumb version of Cinderfella. The Allenesque hero, familiarly the hapless schmuck, the heroic wimp, is played by a terrible actor who has played terrible parts in terrible movies, Owen Wilson. His continuing popularity may be a minor source of despair and a confirmation of the perils of natural selection. Wilson is perfectly cast here.
Wilson/Allen (“Gil Pender”), a screenwriter who thinks, correctly, that he has wasted his life and whatever talent he has, carries about with him a secretive draft novel in which he has poured out his neglected serious heart and which he hugs to his bosom as he and his terrible fiance and her terrible parents (reminding of Tea Party people) and a terrible married couple who are among Pender’s old friends (the guy a Costco version of Salinger’s pretentious intellectuals) they chance upon, are visiting Paris. All these people are Ugly.
Pender longs for the Left Bank Paris of the 1920s. He thinks he has been born too late. Of course, he is not Miniver Cheevy but Miniver Cheery.
As to the “drama” here: Suppose the editors and writers of, say, People magazine, have a couple of Bombay Sapphire martinis and try their best to put together a version of Trivial Pursuit centered on the expat Paris of the 1920s. So: the Fitzgeralds, Hemingway, Stein/Toklas, Cole Porter, Picasso, Dali, Ray, Gauguin, T.S. Eliot, Belmondo and, well, lots of others from then appear in cliche (and therefore ridiculous) cameos. Such happens in Midnight in Paris.
Allen is most Correct and, accordingly, hates Hemingway. Allen uses A Moveable Feast not as rendered by Hemingway but as recalled by the people in People. That is: walking bravely in the rain in winter in Paris on an empty stomach in the confidence of two good sentences turned out that morning in a restaurant that was warm and dry and with good waiters and then there is the rain in Paris.
Here’s a dig from Allen: Hemingway takes away one of Picasso’s mistresses by telling her that a real test is to shoot a charging lion, which means living all up just like matadors, but later Stein says it didn’t work out for Hemingway and the woman when he took her to Africa to hunt Kudu. No lions, after all. Woody’s version of being sly. Hem’s a bluff-artist. Hem’s a wimp.
(Hemingway, currently out of fashion in the world of Vanity Fair, is a great writer whose work is prevailing. For example, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” makes “perfection” cross your mind.)
More generally, keep in mind here the previous roles of Wilson. I’d say Dali is the only sensible cameo, given the surrealism of Wilson/Allen/Pender being welcome amidst the Modernist expats.
Yes, everything in the birth of Modernism in that Paris is trivialized. Which doesn’t much matter; Allen’s pointless production is just boring.
The Cindefella stuff: Pender, understandably declining to spend evenings with the awful yahoos who comprise his fellow travelers, waits nights on a dark Parisian street for the midnight chimes from some steeple to signal the appearance of a 1920s grand touring limo to take him in time travel back to those expat times. Stein reads Pender’s draft novel. The Fitzgeralds welcome him. Hemingway lectures and corrects him. Dali seems intrigued with him. He falls in love with one of Picasso’s girlfriends. Wow, eh?
Then comes the Grand Epiphany: You can’t live in the past. (The hair on your neck not standing up? Good sign.)
Will Allen make any good films again? Well, it’s been a while since Broadway Danny Rose and Hannah and Her Sisters.