I just finished watching Midnight In Paris. Of course, I loved it. How could any lover of A Moveable Feast or The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas or the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald fail to love this movie? Watching a witty, diffident young man from the modern day pal around with Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein and Dali and Picasso makes me as happy as a musician biopic must make a music fan, or a based-on-a-real-story sports film must make a sports fan.
However, there was also something kind of trite about the film. In the movie, a thirtysomething screenwriter (a self-described “Hollywood hack”) is visiting Paris with his fiancé. He fights with her during the day (she does not share his ardor for Paris and evinces no interest in his novel-in-progress), and he spends his nights travelling back in time and experiencing 1920s Paris with his literary idols (mostly an incredibly pretentious Hemingway).
The story is basically about how the protagonist, Gil Prender, doesn’t really believe in himself. He’s not sure whether his writing is good. He’s not sure he has what it takes to be a novelist. He came to Paris in his twenties in order to write, but he didn’t trust himself enough to stay. He left, he sold out, and he’s regretted it ever since. I don’t think it can be much of a spoiler to say that at the end of the movie, he rediscovers his confidence in himself.
Now, I won’t say that it’s not important to believe in oneself. Few artists are able to work without a tremendous amount of audacity. But…that audacity is about continuing to work, despite everything and everyone telling you that you should quit. It’s hardly a triumph of audacity when a magical taxi takes you back into the past, and all of your literary heroes befriend you and give you peptalks on what it means to be an artist, and Gertrude Stein and Hemingway read your novel and tell you that you’re awesome.
You’d have to be a huge fool to not stay in Paris and take a serious shot at novel-writing after the universe reorders the fabric of space and time just so you can receive a boost to your literary pretensions.
That’s why this movie is trite. It’s not a real story, it’s a daydream. Oh, of course, Gil comes away from it with some weird lesson about nostalgia and how people should look forward and live in the present and not always be idealizing the past. But that’s dumb. That’s not what the movie is about. The movie is about a man who’s settling for a career he doesn’t want, just because it pays well. It’s about a man who’s settling for a wife he doesn’t love, just because she’s beautiful. And the movie’s answer to these conundrums is for the universe to provide Gil with pretty substantial evidence that he can get any woman he wants and that his writing is spell-binding.
To me, that’s not an interesting story. I’d prefer to watch the opposite of this, a story that has all the fun caricatures of 1920s lions, but none of the bits where those lions repeatedly assure the Woody Allen stand-in that he’s definitely one of them. I’d like to watch a movie about a man who goes back and finds that his (in real life, astonishingly cruel) literary idols think he’s a bore and a fool. I’d like to watch a story about a man who hands his novel to Gertrude Stein and gets told that he has no talent. What does that man do? Does he switch careers? Does he dump his beautiful fiancé?