Sunday, January 8, 2012

Limp Woody

When you gotta Van Gogh, you gotta Van Gogh.
 What is wrong with this seemingly-clever movie poster? Well, a couple things:

1. Owen Wilson is in it.

2. Although using Van Gogh's Starry Night for a Paris night sky seems clever in a movie about a man time-travelling to meet great Parisian writers and artists of the past, there's the small problem that Van Gogh is not in the movie. Wilson keeps time-travelling to Paris in the 1920s, when Vincent Van Gogh had been dead for 30+ years. Even on his one, brief visit to La Belle Epoque, he doesn't meet Van Gogh. It's like doing a poster advertising a movie in which a man meets and befriends Charles Dickens, by showing him strolling through Hamlet.

Ah, the Woody Allen problem. Woody, Woody, Woody. Woody, you broke my heart.

Once upon a time, in a far-off time called the 1960s, Lenny Bruce died, and Woody Allen became the best stand-up comic on earth. For decades, he was the finest jokesmith in America. Listen to his classic comedy albums; one magnificent joke after another.

Then he became Woody Allen movie-writer/director, and began making wonderful, hilarious movies, like Bananas, Sleeper, Love and Death, culminating in the Oscar-winning masterpiece Annie Hall. We loved Woody. He was funny; he was an artist. He was too above-it-all to bother coming to California to pick up Oscars.

Never tell a comic that they are an artist, especially if they are an artist. Oh a few may have sense enough, like Buster Keaton or Stan Laurel did, to say: "What rot. I'm a baggy-pants comic getting laughs." The art just happens.

But you always run the risk of encountering a Charlie Chaplin, who agrees that he is an artist, while also pursuing inappropriately--young girls for sex. Result: The Great Dictator ends in a turgid lecture to the audience. The otherwise-wonderful Monsieur Verdoux ends in a turgid lecture to the audience. Limelight is a two-hour-plus heartfelt tribute to himself that is almost impossible to sit through, which is unfortunate, because Buster Keaton doesn't appear until nearly the end. (Pauline Kael called Limelight: "The richest hunk of self-gratification since Tom and Huck attended their own funeral - and Chaplin serves it up straight.") No one saw A King in New York, in which Chaplin found modern New York and television crass. And no one should ever see A Countess From Hong Kong.

But at least Chaplin only made about one movie a decade after he learned he was an artist. Woody churns out one movie a year, like apple blossoms, whether the apples are any good or not.

Woody became Chaplin. He made self-regarding movies, like Stardust Memories, which was basically Woody spending 90 minutes slapping his fans across the face. He made the turgid Interiors, which I'm told some people even saw. He made the delightful Hannah and Her Sisters, and everyone liked it so much that he's been remaking it in different world cities ever since.

And of course, there was Manhattan. It had the best-possible "This-is-Art" pedigree: it was in black & white, and none of the characters were likable except the high school girl. The movie posited, with a straight face, that the best and most-healthy romantic relationship for a middle-aged man was a romance with a high school girl. That a more-appropriate and healthier romance for the high school girl might be with someone HER OWN AGE did not appear to be a realistic idea to Woody. Of course not, because she existed only to be the man's (Woody Allen, by coincidence I'm sure) salvation, an unjaded girl, who also happens to be jailbait.

It's a full-out "artistic" defense of statutory rape, and it got great reviews, was a big hit, and somehow didn't creep out America. My friends did not understand why I was creeped out by it. Pauline Kael and I seemed to be the only people in America that noticed it was a tale of a child molester told from the molester's POV, and presenting it as as GOOD and HEALTHY!

So why was anyone surprised when we learned he was screwing his own high-school-age step-daughter? He'd already made a movie declaring his pedophilic intentions, one with lovely photography, great Gershwin music, and excellent jokes.

Sometime after the treasure Bullets Over Broadway, people stopped being excited over new Woody Allen movies. In fact, people stopped going to them, but Woody kept making them. There were good reasons why Woody lost his audience:

1. Many were old, and died. I'm lucky to be still hanging on.

2. Another Woman, New York Stories, Alice, Shadows and Fog, The Mighty Aphrodite, Everyone Says I Love You, Deconstructing Harry, Small Time Crooks, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Melinda and Melinda... This list goes on, and on.

But every so often out would come what would be called "Woody's best-reviewed movie in years." They come about every three years. Generally they are remakes of earlier Woody movies, only moved to Europe. Match Point was pretty good. If you hadn't seen Crimes and Misdemeanors, it was even better.

God forbid that Woody might try different titles styles, maybe, in some Saul Bass-ish way, to adapt the titles style to the movie it announces. Nope. Exact same titles every movie.

Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen's latest "Best Movie in Years," except it isn't. I watched it last week, and I could not have been more disappointed. It's not so much a remake of Woody's wonderful The Purple Rose of Cairo of 26 years ago, as a merely extremely-similar type of wish-fulfillment, living-a-daydream fantasy, only without the artistic balls to provide the believable downbeat ending that Purple Rose had. Purple Rose was a fantasy about reality and daydreams, and how reality is still there after you've returned from the escapism. Midnight in Paris is just silly dreck. It's subject is the lure and danger of nostalgia, like remembering when Woody Allen made great movies.

The premise is simple enough. A TV writer (Woody Allen-speak for "sell-out." Woody started out as a TV writer) who has written a novel about "nostalgia," visits Paris with his fiancee and her parents (And, apparently, with his manuscript), where he finds himself transported each midnight to Paris in the 1920s, where he hangs out with Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and The Fitzgeralds, and has a romance with a woman who makes a career out of being the mistress of artists. (What she saw in Owen Wilson we never figure out, much as it was always impossible to figure out why all those hot women slept with Woody in his other movies. Interesting and entertaining to talk with? Sure. Sexy? Not on the Planet Earth.)

The "Woody Allen Character" in this movie is Owen Wilson. Woody has to have other actors play his roles these days, because he is too old to play the romantic leads anymore, and it never occurs to Woody to write a movie about a man his own age. (If he did, the man Woody's age would undoubtedly have a romance with a teenager anyway, so it's just as well.)

You can hear Owen "doing" Woody as he squawks the sort of remarks Woody made in hectic situations in other movies, except that they're about half, or a third, as clever and funny as the stuff Woody used to write for himself to say. Whether Woody didn't write any good jokes for Wilson to say deliberately, or whether he's just not the best jokesmith in America anymore I do not know.

Owen's fiance is a shrill shrew who is shallower than a Mormon sermon. It is impossible to believe Owen ever went on a second date with this lovely hag, let alone proposed marriage to her. She is not a character; she's a walking rom-com cliche: the fiancee who exists solely to be dumped when the protagonist wises up. If this were a Cary Grant movie, Owen's fiancee would be played by Ralph Bellamy.

Her parents are also cartoonish buffoons so dead to what's around them you wonder why they would bother to go to Europe at all. Apparently they just go to Paris so they can criticize it. (It's all so OLD!) They are mildly redeemed by the fact that about three-quarters of the very-few laughs I laughed during this picture were in response to Mimi Kennedy's hilarious mother-in-law from Hell.

Woody doesn't explain why this daydream happens to Owen, or what its rules are beyond starting with a car going by a particular spot at Midnight. Okay. He didn't explain why The Purple Rose of Cairo happened either. Stephen King's huge new novel 11/22/63, waits until nearly the end to offer a small stab at an explanation of why there's this time-travel portal. But King is quite clear about why it happens to his protagonist. Apparently Wilson has this miracle happen because he'd really like it if it did. So would lots of other people. Why don't they rate?

I love Gertrude Stein on HARRY'S LAW, and Hemingway was good on the short-lived LAW & ORDER: LA.

So Owen goes off midnights and hangs with Hemingway and his pals. He tells them he's a writer, and they all accept him at face value, and welcome him into their literary salons and drinking bouts, never noticing that he never says anything interesting or perceptive. All he does is fawn on their work (sometimes praising stuff they haven't written yet), and he's welcomed in and asked along. Basically, he's their fan. I don't know how to break this to you, but it's rare for fans to become intimate friends with those that they are fans of. Creative people crave other creative people, not the people who love their work but have nothing to offer themselves.

Ah, but Wilson has a novel on "nostalgia," a word none of them know. Gertrude Stein volunteers to read it on knowing Wilson for 2 minutes, when he has displayed exactly zero interesting thoughts or comments. I found that harder to believe than the time-travel. (And the time travel is apparently not limited to Wilson. A private detective follows him, and somehow gets trapped in pre-revolutionary Paris of the 18th Century. Why? How? It's a plot thread that goes nowhere, and seems lifted from a Blake Edwards movie. Further, the movie expects us to find the detective fleeing aristos of 1780 funny. Why? The detective is an innocent who was hired to follow a man, and for this non-crime he gets trapped in the past. I was appalled, not amused.)

And then we come to the people Wilson encounters in the past. Every season, Doctor Who has an episode where The Doctor and his current companion travel to a point in earth's past and meets some historical figure with whom they fight some alien monster. Since the DW revival began, The Doctor has had adventures with Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare (a ridiculously over-sexy Shakespeare), Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill, Vincent Van Gogh, and he apparently deflowered Elizabeth I of England. "She's not 'The Virgin Queen' anymore."

The counterfeit historical characters The Doctor meets are all (except maybe Shakespeare) a lot more believable than the versions of famous folks from the past Owen Wilson meets. I could buy that Tony Curran was Van Gogh, but Corey Stoll's Hemingway is not Ernest Hemingway. It's a fan's daydream of Hemingway. I can not believe that, in all casual conversation, Hemingway always spoke in an affected parody of his own prose style.

What does Hemingway need with Owen Wilson? And why is someone as notoriously heterosexual as Hemingway hanging all over that gorgeous man?

Nothing against Corey Stoll's performance. Since his Hemingway isn't written realistically (despite the fact that he's supposed to be the real Hemingway), Stoll plays him with a droll stylized wit. He was funny, I just don't think Real Hemingway was funny. I might add that Stoll was far sexier than the real Hemingway ever was. I'd do Stoll (Corey, call me), but I'd never have done Hemingway, which is, incidentally, why he killed himself. I should have let him down more easily.

If the real Ernest Hemingway was as hot as Corey Stoll, I'd at least have read him.

Adrien Brody's one, brief scene (For which he gets billing equal with Wilson and Stoll and Kathy Bates and Rachel McAdams, all of whom worked more than just one day on the film) as Salvador Dali is funny, and Brody got, from me, the biggest laugh of the movie with the line "I see a rhinoceros," but I'm sorry, none of these characters ring true to me. Kathy Bates comes closest, although her readiness to read this guy's manuscript just because he shook her hand and said he was a writer, and her liking it with suggestions (despite being surprised by it's "science-fiction" nature, being set in the future, i.e.the present), I found impossible to believe. Judging from his conversation, I find it impossible to believe this guy can write well, or even type competently.

It's a daydream, but it is presented as real. It's better than Woody's worst, but not as good as his good films. It will get a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination it does not deserve, but it won't win. [Post-Oscars Addendum: Oops. Looks Like I over-estimated the taste of the Screenwriting branch of the Academy, as Woody's third-rate screenplay did win its undeserved Oscar.] It's third-rate Allen at best, and his most-overpraised movie in years, but there are some lovely shots of Paris, a city that is almost as hard to make look good in a picture as Yosemite National Park. I love Paris in the springtime, Woody loves Paris in the wrong time.

Cheers darlings.

Little Dougie, Toulouse, and I take in Paris. Wow! Time Travel! Here we are in 1994! "La Ennui Epoque".