Tell someone born after 1990 that there was a time when Woody Allen was arguably the most celebrated and eagerly anticipated director in American movies, and the person is liable to look at you with a blank expression — pretty much the way people did in 1978 when you said that the guy playing Dirty Harry would one day be a world-class auteur.
The writer-director-star's work has been seismically erratic over the last 20 years of his five-decade career, and his films these days are like a jazz master's obligatory yearly album of standards: You hear a lot of the same old songs, sometimes fully engaged and sweet, sometimes lifeless and sour, yet always with a feeling and phrasing that are no one else's.
That includes Midnight in Paris, his biggest commercial success in years, a movie that cannily tweaks its viewers' — and its maker's — fondness for an idealized past while indulging it to a burnished glow.
The film's hero, a modern-day American screenwriter, pines for the jazz-age Paris of Ernest Hemingway, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker and Gertrude Stein. Through the kind of matter-of-fact sleight-of-hand that Allen perfected in stories such as "The Kugelmass Episode," the movie weighs what is better: the exact replica of an imagined ideal, constructed from cultural artifacts, or flickers of wonder and surprise in the imperfect moment.
That makes Midnight in Paris sound awfully heavy, when its lightness and magical mood are its abiding pleasures. As the screenwriter, Owen Wilson makes the most appealing and casual of Allen's recent surrogates, capturing the author's stammered rhythms without losing his own gangly charm. He's surrounded by amusing players — Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody — in cameos that amount to a bibliophile's dress-up party. That coziness gives the movie its warmth — that, plus the firelight gleam of Darius Khondji's camerawork — but it also leaves the movie slight and underdeveloped. The comic thrust is the persistent longing for an earlier, better, more golden age that exists only in daydreams, yet Allen the director adores it too much himself to pop the balloon.
Even so, Allen's serene assurance and his affectionate regard for his hero's lovestruck susceptibility give Midnight in Paris a twilit grace. Nowhere are these qualities more visible than in the scenes with Marion Cotillard's adventuresome flapper — a reminder of those occasions in Allen's work when the close study of a woman's face could take your breath away. When Cotillard is in close-up, eyes flickering with mischief and with the promise of the moment, Midnight in Paris doesn't make you nostalgic for Allen's earlier movies. It makes you happy to be right where you are.