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Woody Allen delivers a gem in 'Midnight in Paris'

Photo by Kristen Ralph

Photo by Kristen Ralph

Midnight in Paris

(PG-13)

3 1/2 out of 4

Whether hating or feeling indifferent about Woody Allen, even the most casual movie fan can’t deny or marginalize his immense influence on his peers. Next to or just slightly below Martin Scorsese, he is America’s greatest living filmmaker but has forever been hampered by a huge, self-inflicted detriment. Allen makes too many movies and repeats himself far too often.

Even though most of Allen’s last 20 films have been mostly misfires, he never goes longer than five years or so without delivering an absolute gem. Since he ventured beyond his New York home turf, Allen has achieved greatness only twice. The London-based “Match Point” from ’05 was one; “Midnight in Paris” is the other.

Allen is never going to appeal to the masses although “Midnight” is his most audience-friendly effort since “Mighty Aphrodite.” As great as “Match Point” was, it was also a seedy murder mystery; not something mainstreamers usually crave. “Midnight” is a straight-forward comedy with heavy amounts of fantasy and is romantic as well but never in the traditional way. It’s a mash-up movie that takes its entire length to become completely clear with its message. Allen hasn’t been this original in a very long time.

Since he essentially stopped being his own leading man, Allen has pegged many worthy actors to perform as his mouthpiece, yet few have been as effective at it as Owen Wilson is here. In addition to not being the typical nebbish, neurotic Allen stand-in, Wilson is also not regarded by many as an actor with great range. He’s not the kind of guy who comes to mind when one imagines subtlety or finesse; he’s an actor that is called on when a party dude or a voice-over for an animated car is needed.

We meet successful screenwriter Gil (Wilson) and his gorgeous fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) at the beginning of what appears to be an extended Parisian vacation. Gil should be a very happy guy, but he’s not. He and Inez are traveling with her shallow, materialistic, ultra-conservative parents and both consider Gil to be a fanciful dreamer and a (gasp) liberal. Inez is the apple of their eye (and one who hasn’t fallen very from the tree) and seems more interested in Gil’s Hollywood connections than actually being in love with him.

Even though his future in-laws, Inez and her know-it-all college friend (Michael Sheen) are seriously depleting Gil’s mojo, he is able to recharge on a nightly basis by strolling around the city and soaking up its artsy good vibes and bohemian attitude. Gil’s fascination with Paris is rooted in what he and others refer to as the “Golden Age” of literature, which started there in the 1920s. He would love nothing more than to ditch Hollywood for good, move to Paris and write important novels.

If you’ve been lucky enough to miss the trailers for the film continue doing so. In them the studio steals all of the movie’s thunder by revealing its major plot twist. The good news is that this twist comes at about the 30-minute mark and Allen still has a few more, albeit less-surprising, wrinkles in store.

As with all of his great films, Allen populates “Midnight” with a slew of top-notch famous and not-so-famous supporting players who lend the narrative unique flavor and understated wit. It’s no wonder actors around the world clamor to be in his movies, feel honored when Allen pegs them for a role and very few of them ever turn him down.

There’s more good news for Allen fans. His next movie (“Bop Decameron” currently filming) takes place in Rome. Based on recent history, every time Allen sets a movie in a new (for him) European country he turns out a winner. Allen should never make another movie in America again; Europe is suiting him just fine. (Sony Classics)