It's conventional wisdom that Woody Allen's American fan base has all but deserted him over the last 20 years. Between his 1990s personal scandals and a series of hit-or-miss movies that seemed like pale xeroxes of his earlier films, viewers in his own country had pretty much abandoned him to the French. So how, then, can one explain the smash success of his current 'Midnight in Paris,' which has grossed more than any movie Allen has made in his four-decade career?
The romantic comedy, which was still in the top 10 at the box office last weekend before falling to number 12 this weekend after more than two months in theaters, has grossed $45.7 million in North America as of July 28. That tops the $40.1 million grossed by Allen's 'Hannah and Her Sisters' a quarter century ago, and it doubles the earnings of such recent modest Allen hits as 2008's 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona' and 2005's 'Match Point,' both of which grossed about $23.2 million.
Adjusted for inflation, Allen's biggest hit is still 1979's 'Manhattan,' which earned $39.9 million - about $130 million in today's ticket prices. Still, 'Midnight in Paris' has also earned $33.5 million overseas, for a worldwide total of $79.2 million, and it shows little sign of slowing down anytime soon.
What's behind the film's windfall? Here are some possible answers:
It's Really Good
Obvious, perhaps, but still, consensus is nearly universal that Allen hasn't made a movie this good in two decades. It has a 92 percent score among critics at Rotten Tomatoes (and an 85 percent audience score there) and an 81 score at Metacritic. No Allen movie has received scores this high or reviews this glowing since 1994's 'Bullets Over Broadway.'
It's Great Summer Escapism
Allen's time-travel fantasy is neither the typical thorny art-house movie nor the typical frantic romantic comedy. It's just a lovely daydream in an exotic location.
It's a Terrific Travelogue
Can't afford to go to the real Paris this summer? You can still visit its top tourist attractions vicariously. They've been lovingly photographed by cinematographer Darius Khondji with the same fond eye that Gordon Willis brought to New York's landmarks in 'Manhattan.'
It Doesn't Look Like a Low-Budget Indie Movie
Because it's not. While most Allen movies are shot on a shoestring, this one cost $30 million. It displays lavish period detail, from costumes to cars. Plus, for the first time, Allen used the digital intermediate process in post-production, rather than traditional photochemical color timing, to set the colors of the movie and tweak the images. So it looks like an expensive studio film.
Owen Wilson Makes a Better Woody Than Woody
Lots of Allen's recent movies have featured an Allen surrogate in the lead romantic role, playing the kind of lovelorn intellectual nerd that Allen would have played himself in younger days. (Because who wants to see the septuagenarian Allen as a romantic lead anymore?) Many of them have picked up his vocal rhythms and body language (notably, John Cusack and Kenneth Branagh, and to a lesser extent, Jason Biggs, Will Ferrell and Larry David), which makes them look and sound like poor Woody Allen impersonators. But Owen Wilson does none of that. He manages to convey the Allen attitude without aping Allen's mannerisms, so he seems an original spin on the usual character. Plus, he's Owen Wilson, so he brings a huge reserve of laid-back charm to the role that other stars (including Allen himself) have lacked.
There have been a lot of successful R-rated comedies this summer, trying to outdo each other in raunchy outrageousness. 'Midnight,' however, is rated PG-13. There's some risqué talk but no on-screen action, and no jokes built around full-frontal nudity or bodily fluids. If you're a grown-up who wants comedy but feels that 'The Hangover Part II,' 'Bridesmaids,' 'Bad Teacher,' or 'Friends With Benefits' are too puerile for you, 'Midnight' is your antidote.
Allen fans often complain that he no longer makes broadly hilarious movies like he used to in his heyday. Well, here you go. 'Midnight' is full of all kinds of humor, operating on several different levels. There are big sight gags, snappy one-liners, and sly references to classic works of art, literature, and film. If you catch them all, you can pat yourself on the back for being well-read, but even if you don't, there's always another big laugh right around the corner.
It's serious. As much as his fans profess to love his early slapstick comedies, Allen's biggest hit movies have been the ones that have something to say. 'Annie Hall'? Love is painful and doesn't last, but we keep trying because we can't live without it. 'Match Point' and 'Crimes and Misdemeanors'? We live in a random universe with no expectation of justice. 'Hannah and her Sisters'? We can't know if there's life after death, so we might as well enjoy life before death. (The exception may be 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona,' whose point seems to be that Americans just aren't cut out to live lives of grand passion, at least not like Spaniards.) 'Midnight,' too, has a point to make, behind all the comedy.
Its Message Is Resonant
If 'Midnight' has a theme, it's that nostalgia is a lovely trap. Wilson's character learns that everyone thinks their present-day existence is dull compared to some previous golden age; even the people in that supposed golden age felt that way. Better to look forward instead of backward. (Indeed, for all his fondness for 1920s Jazz Age culture and music, Allen's never been one trapped in the past. At this writing, the 75-year-old is already busy shooting his next movie, making a film set in Rome for the first time in his career.)
At a time when the present seems not just dreary but utterly bleak, it's no wonder moviegoers would want to take Allen's easy journey into an exciting, carefree past. 'Midnight' allows viewers to play along with the parlor-game question, "If you could go back in time, which era would you visit?" But after the indulgence of nostalgia, it reassures viewers that the best is yet to come, that the golden age is still ahead of us. Who wouldn't want to spend 90 minutes taking that trip?
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.