There’s a scene in Danny Boyle’s ‘Trainspotting’ where two of its anti-heroes, Renton and Sick Boy, debate the careers of pop stars, footballers and actors.
Sick Boy opines that Sean Connery is following the same downward trajectory of those “who had it and then lost it”. He mentions Elvis Presley, George Best, Lou Reed, David Niven, Malcolm McLaren and former Celtic striker Charlie Nicholas in the same breath.
If Sick Boy were to compile a 2012 list, he may well include Woody Allen.
For much of the 1970s, 80s and early 90s, Allen was the film connoisseur’s comedian – churning out every year some of cinema’s smartest and most critically acclaimed comedies.
From the slapstick of ‘Bananas’ and ‘Sleeper’ to the sophisticated wit of ‘Annie Hall’ and ‘Hannah and Her Sisters’ to the nostalgic humour of ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’ and ‘Radio Days’, his movies always guaranteed a high laughter count, powerful acting and strong storytelling.
As a director he was also a force to be reckoned with, drawing on a range of influences from Federico Fellini to the Marx Brothers, from Orson Welles to his cinematic hero, Ingmar Bergman.
Allen didn’t always produce gems in those golden years – as anyone who has seen the morose ‘Interiors’, ‘September’, ‘Another Woman’ or ‘Shadows and Fog’ – will testify.
But in the 1980s he was so on top of his game he eclipsed Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola with ‘Oedipus Wrecks’ – his short film contribution to their 1989 anthology movie ‘New York Stories’.
It’s been a different story, however, since 1996 and Allen’s delightful tribute to the classic Hollywood musicals, ‘Everyone Says I Love You’.
Fans have been struggling with a career of diminishing returns, with a series of disappointing movies like ‘Celebrity’, ‘The Curse of the Jade Scorpion’, ‘Melinda and Melinda’ and ‘Cassandra’s Dream’.
Even when an Allen movie approaches something resembling past glories like ‘Sweet and Lowdown’, ‘Vicky Christina Barcelona’ or ‘Whatever Works’, it is enthusiastically jumped upon as a return to form. However it suffers when measured against his earlier films.
Chicago Sun Times critic Roger Ebert perfectly captured Allen’s predicament: “I cannot escape the suspicion that if Woody had never made a previous film, if each new one was Woody’s Sundance debut, it would get a better reception. His reputation is not a dead shark but an albatross, which with admirable economy Allen has arranged for the critics to carry around their own necks.”
Always keen to stretch himself, the director has mostly forsaken his New York stories and turned to London, Barcelona, Paris and Rome for inspiration.
However it is only with the release last October of ‘Midnight in Paris’ that he has managed to have critics falling over themselves again with praise, with Oscar nominations to boot.
‘Midnight in Paris’ falls in the category of whimsical Allen comedies, harking back to a golden age.
Gil (Owen Wilson), a screenwriter, is struggling to write a novel and seeking inspiration while visiting Paris with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her Tea Party supporting parents John (Kurt Fuller) and Helen (Mimi Kennedy).
One night feeling tipsy after a wine tasting, he goes for a stroll but finds himself being transported back to 1920s Paris in an antique Peugeot taxi cab and a party featuring Cole Porter (Yves Heck) on the piano, F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill).
He is soon rubbing shoulders with Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), Man Ray (Tom Cordler) and Luis Bunuel (Adrien de Van).
While his manuscript is being critiqued by Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), he meets and falls for one of Picasso’s muses, Adriana (Marion Cotillard).
Back in the 21st century, his prospective in-laws hire a private detective (Gad Elmaleh) to find out where he is going on his midnight strolls while Inez hangs out with her arrogant close friend Paul (Michael Sheen).
Owen Wilson turns in another likeable lead performance as Gil and it is to his credit that he resists the temptation to impersonate his director like other Allen leads (Kenneth Branagh in ‘Celebrity’, John Cusack in ‘Bullets Over Broadway’).
There are strong supporting performances by Cotillard, Sheen, Bates, Brody, Fuller and particularly Corey Stoll in what should be a star making performance.
French President Nicolas Sarkosy’s wife Carla Bruni also comes on board as a tour guide in the gardens of the Rodin Museum.
But while the movie is full of charm, it lacks the bite and belly laughs of Allen’s best films.
In many ways the opening of ‘Midnight in Paris’ sums up what is wrong with the movie.
The opening montage of Parisienne street scenes is reminiscent of the beginning of ‘Manhattan’ but it pales by comparison. A routine jazz soundtrack cannot compete with the bombast of Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and you find yourself longing for the voiceover of Allen’s earlier work.
As a narrative device, the antique taxi of ‘Midnight in Paris’ lacks the magic of Mia Farrow climbing up on the cinema screen in ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’ (Allen’s affectionate nod to Buster Keaton’s innovative silent comedy ‘Sherlock Jr’) and the nostalgia feels more weary than ‘Radio Days’.
Having said that, the film is boosted by the beautifully lit cinematography of Darius Khondji and Johanne Debas and Sonia Grande’s sumptuous costume design.
‘Midnight in Paris’ is yet another reminder of past Allen triumphs but not a return to full form. But even on three quarters of a tank, Allen’s film is well worth a look.
However even with Woody Allen, it would appear that nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.
‘Midnight in Paris’ is available to rent or purchase on Warner Brothers DVD.