CANNES, France — Woody Allen’s love affair with France, which goes back at least 30 years, finds its consummation with “Midnight in Paris,” the latest of Allen’s tourist-board brochures from foreign ports of call, which opened the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday. (His next movie will be made in Rome. Yes, really.) It’s no surprise that premiere audiences here ate up this lightweight, rather silly fantasy about the eternal allure of the City of Light. But the good news is that Allen seems to be paying attention in a way he hasn’t always done in recent films, and has found a way to channel his often-caustic misanthropy, half-comic fear of death and anti-American bitterness into agreeable comic whimsy.
Of all the leading men Allen has hired to stand in for him as the awkward, lovelorn, fatally talky writer-type hero since he stopped appearing in his own movies (a list that includes Ewan McGregor, Hugh Jackman, Josh Brolin and, unhappily, Larry David), none has seemed less suited to the role than Owen Wilson. As Allen explained to the press corps here, he cast Wilson as frustrated Hollywood screenwriter Gil Pender — who sees a Paris vacation as a chance to start over — precisely because Wilson was a “California beach boy” who didn’t remind the director of himself. However it works, it works pretty well; Wilson may not possess immense range or dramatic technique, but I’ve always enjoyed him. He’s masterful with subtle, slow-burn comedy and can be a gentle screen presence in a way Allen never is. Gil is a naive, almost feral creature, wonderfully unfazed by the farcical and magical adventures that befall him.
Gil is in Paris with his insufferable fiancée, Inez (a truly thankless role for Rachel McAdams, who can do nothing with it), and her even worse parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy), rich conservatives from who-knows-where who talk dismissively about French politics, wine and culture but don’t blink at dropping 20 grand for some antique furniture to decorate their daughter’s Malibu beach house. Fortunately these people only appear in a few scenes, because they’re more like a New Yorker cartoonist’s line drawing of what Republicans might be like than the real thing. Allen has never had even the vaguest idea of what sort of life may be found west of the Hudson; if he really wants to go exotic he could get off the Grand Tour and try making “Vicky Cristina Tuscaloosa.”
Gil is another one of Allen’s Euro-pining Yank expatriates, or in his case an aspiring expatriate. Supposedly he visited Paris long ago and harbored dreams of moving there to write, 1920s-style, before surrendering his soul to Hollywood to write crappy screenplays. All this is more like general nostalgic sentiment than specific emotion, but that doesn’t matter much. Allen lets cinematographer Darius Khondji gather some gorgeous, if stereotypical street images of Paris by day and by night, and lets the city work its magic on Gil and on us. When Gil finds himself strolling late at night in an unfamiliar arrondissement, the church bells striking midnight carry him somehow — never mind how — into the mists of the past to meet the Lost Generation of the ’20s for himself.
It’s pure and unadulterated silliness, mixed with Allen’s chronic longing for the era shortly before his birth (isn’t that often the one we focus on?), but frankly those are his best instruments these days. Within a few minutes of this miraculous transubstantiation, Gil is standing in a crowded party with his jaw on the floor, being introduced to a Southern belle named Zelda (Alison Pill) and her husband, Scott (the delightful Tom Hiddleston, aka Loki from “Thor”), while Cole Porter bangs out “Let’s Do It” on the piano to an increasingly interested crowd of female onlookers. And the guest stars just keep on coming! Scott soon introduces Gil to his likable but hypermasculine friend Ernie Hemingway (Corey Stoll), who’s full of boxing and hunting stories and bons mots about grace and courage, and who pulls Gil along to meet the mentor and advisor every budding novelist deserves. That would be Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), of course, holding court in her enormous apartment and arguing in several languages with a young painter named Pablo (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo).
If “Midnight in Paris” gets almost totally taken over by this string of cameos — Bates is terrific, but Adrien Brody steals the show as the charming, somewhat idiotic Salvador Dalí, somehow making the rolling roundness of the word “rhinoceros” hilarious — that’s not altogether a bad thing. OK, sticking in Carla Bruni, wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, to play a meaningless tour-guide role, is a naked play for the Gallic audience, but she does no damage. There’s plenty of goofballing — why does Gil suddenly know so much about ’20s art and culture on his trips back to the present? — and an enjoyable love story involving Marion Cotillard as a lovely art-scene groupie who has been Picasso’s lover (and Braque’s, and Modigliani’s) but who herself yearns for a lost “age d’or” in the gas-lit 19th-century Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec and the Impressionists.
Wilson and Cotillard make an appealing, low-impact couple, delighted to have found each other in the middle of a fluffy time-travel comedy, but of course the nominal point of “Midnight in Paris” is that we’ve all got to make the best of life in our own time while longing for a past that probably never existed. If anything, Allen seems to be rebuking himself, ever so mildly, for his compulsive romanticism, his obsession with the past and his disconnection from contemporary American life. It’s not like he depicts 21st-century Parisian life with much realism either; we see a few picturesque tourist spots and the exceedingly beautiful Léa Seydoux, who appears to be standing around in bookshops waiting for Gil to break up with Inez. (This guy is so awesome he pulls hot French chicks in alternate dimensions!) I get it: If you want a movie about Algerian rappers in the banlieues you’ll have to go elsewhere. Allen has baked us a sweet, airy Parisian pastry with just a hint of wistful substance in the finish, and gotten this year’s Cannes festivities off to a winning start.