WOODY'S RENAISSANCE; Woody Allen's Magical Trip to Paris Is Every Bit as Good as Manhattan and Annie Hall

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Byline: by Chris Tookey

Midnight In Paris (12A)

Verdict: Magical, charming and wise

*****

The Lion King 3D (U)

Verdict: Classic cartoon musical

*****

JUST when Woody Allen seemed to have written and directed himself out, he comes up with his biggest hit. Midnight In Paris arrives here as his highestgrossing movie, surpassing even Hannah And Her Sisters, Manhattan and Annie Hall (Rachel -- and it's one of his best.

The blond, laid-back, very un-Jewish Owen Wilson may seem like a daft choice to play Allen's latest angst-ridden alter ego, but he turns out to be ideal.

His unpretentious charm takes the curse off the 75-year-old Allen's increasingly crotchety approach to characters he dislikes -- which includes pedants, academics and anyone politically to the right of centre.

Wilson plays Gil, a Hollywood hack screenwriter with dreams of being a great novelist. He's revising the first draft of a book while visiting Paris with his practical-minded fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her stuffy, Francophobe parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy).

As if they are not bad enough company, Gil runs into Inez's old friend Paul (Michael Sheen), an insufferable know-it-all who prefaces every statement with the mock-humble 'if I'm not mistaken', and spends his time either contradicting the guide at the Rodin museum (Carla Bruni, adequate in an undemanding role) or trying to make Gil feel inferior.

Gil's holiday is hugely improved when, on the stroke of midnight over a number of nights, he is miraculously transported back to Paris in the Twenties, where he meets a who's who of cultural heroes, starting with F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). Allen has a lot of fun with them, especially Hemingway, whom he makes an endearing mixture of artistic integrity and posturing machismo.

Hemingway probes Gil for evidence of masculinity with the query: 'Have you ever hunted?' Gil parries this away with the quintessentially Woody one-liner: 'Only for bargains.'

Gil also falls in love with the gorgeous Adriana (Marion Cotillard, so who wouldn't?). She's a high-class groupie, formerly involved with Braque and Modigliani, and currently shacked up with temperamental, up-and-coming artist Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo).

She, of course, loathes the mediocrity of Paris in the Twenties and much prefers the Belle Epoque of the 1890s, when the arts scene was livelier, and you could have run into truly talented people like Gauguin, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec.

Cynics might suggest that the reason Midnight In Paris is turning out to be Allen's biggest hit is that it offers a superficial view of Paris, a name-dropping view of artists, and an ambivalent view of nostalgia. The argument of the film is that you shouldn't live in the past; the underlying, and surely contradictory, message is that the past is infinitely more alluring than the present.

And yet so harsh an analysis is to underestimate the film's attractions.

The opening shots (reminiscent of Allen's 1979 masterpiece, Manhattan) are at first sight a compendium of cliches -- Notre Dame, the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower all put in appearances. …