'Midnight in Paris' becomes Woody Allen's all-time biggest hit. How the heck did that happen?

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Image Credit: Everett Collection; Roger Arpajou

It turns out that Owen Wilson, playing the last herringbone-jacketed screenwriter in Hollywood, wasn’t the only one who wanted to go back in time to meet the great expatriate writers and artists of the 1920s. This weekend, Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s time-machine-of-high-culchah trifle, crossed the line to become the filmmaker’s all-time biggest hit, surpassing the $40.1 million mark set 25 years ago by Hannah and Her Sisters. That movie made its money in two separate releases one year apart, so perhaps Allen’s real erstwhile biggest hit should be considered Manhattan. And, of course, if you factor in inflation, Midnight in Paris wouldn’t be number one by a long shot. That said, movie-land accountants don’t tend to do a lot of adjusting for inflation (they look at the raw numbers), and so the inescapable fact is that the top of Allen’s box-office track record will now look like this:

1. Midnight in Paris ($41.8 million, probably heading toward $50 million)

2. Hannah and Her Sisters ($40.1 million)

3. Manhattan ($39.9 million)

4. Annie Hall ($38.2 million)

Quick, can you say: “One of these things just doesn’t belong here?”

I’m never one to begrudge anyone a hit, and certainly not Woody Allen, who has always found a way to make a movie a year (forget the couch — making movies is his therapy), though not, in recent years, without jumping through a few hoops. His movies, when viewed next to the clattering roller-coasters of Hollywood, are almost legendarily “small,” which is why he has been forced to go to Europe for financing, and to set most of his recent pictures there, a trend that began with Match Point (2005), the nimble, devious, midnight-dark, Woody-meets-Hitchcock thriller that, to me, should have become his new all-time biggest hit.

Creatively, it’s been a good run for him, even if the novelty of Allen’s Euro-movies, at least in my eyes, has begun to wear off. To get that novelty back, here’s a suggestion: He should now set a comedy in Berlin, starring Ryan Gosling as a visiting American professor of Holocaust Studies torn between his devoted French Jewish girlfriend, played by Mélanie Laurent, and the 18-year-old goth German temptress, played by Emma Stone with a Marlene Dietrich accent, who turns out to be the great-granddaughter of a member of the SS. Talk about having your Nazi jokes, love-vs.-lust triangle, and moral ambiguity at the same time.

But I digress. Up until now, the movies that crossed over from Woody Allen’s core audience to become his major hits were also his greatest films. (That’s true even if you go back to his Early, Funny Films. The cathartically hilarious Borscht Belt-surrealist comedies that planted Allen on the cultural map were crowd-pleasers that raked in substantial amounts of money, from Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, at $18 million, to Love and Death, at $20 million.) I’m well aware that Midnight in Paris is a movie that a lot of people seem to love, or at least like a lot. But to me it’s a minor shock that this movie, with its one-note flippancy and its Great Artist caricatures who seem to have walked in out of an old Saturday Night Live sketch, has gotten such a hold on audiences. The movie may on some level be charming, and it’s got that Paris-in-the-rain, summer-travelogue-from-heaven factor, but, I’m sorry, its slightly daffy la vie de bohème nostalgia is so, so thin. Which is why its all-time-biggest-hit status for Woody looms as quite a paradox in his career.

All you have to do is to say the titles of the three movies in Woody’s neurotic-romantic New York trilogy — Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters — to conjure a spirit of filmmaking that, in addition to being immortally funny, is richly observant and psychological and dramatic. Those movies may have come out a long time ago, but they have never left us, and it was largely because of them that the phrase “Woody Allen movie” came to symbolize something so special. They were some of the most soulful comedies ever made.

Over time, however, the phrase “Woody Allen movie” has undergone a chemical change. For decades, Allen griped about what he saw as the clanking superficiality of contemporary Hollywood movies. His inspiration always came from somewhere else — from the art-house giants (Bergman, Fellini) he famously revered, or from the winsome sublimity of the silent clowns. Yet I would argue that the Hollywood brand of moviemaking that Woody Allen has always looked askance at is defined, more than anything, by its psychological thinness. And in that light, Midnight in Paris, while it certainly has the pleading earnest hero, the opening credits with the white-on-black Windsor EF-Elongated lettering, and the name-dropping cultural-studies chitchat, is less a classic “Woody Allen movie” than a comedy that masquerades as highbrow while delivering high concept. It’s the rare Woody Allen movie that’s not so much great enough to be a smash as slender-and-lite enough to be a smash.

So what did you think of Midnight in Paris? Are you surprised that it’s such a big hit? Do you think it deserves to be Allen’s new number one?

* * * *

Speaking of smashed records, Bridesmaids, as I cautiously predicted here a month and a half ago, has crossed the line to become the biggest hit ever produced by Judd Apatow. That, too, is a pretty big paradox, considering that the Apatow factory, from the moment that it was placed on the map with the one-two punch of The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, has been devoted, in its very molecules, to the horny, slobby, selfish, arrested, and ultimately romantic worldview of contemporary men-who-are-overgrown-boys. So far, the message that Hollywood seems to have taken from the incredible success of Bridesmaids is a predictably reductive one, something along the lines of: Hey, look! Raunchy comedies for women with awesome gross-out scenes in the middle of them can be big box office too!! The message that Hollywood should be taking is: A comedy that’s raunchy and fearless, and also brilliantly written and shrewdly honest about what’s really going on in women’s lives, may actually connect with the fabled non-teenage audience (remember them?). It’s a message that the Woody Allen of Annie Hall would have appreciated.

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

Comments (138 total) Add your comment
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  • Matt DeGroot

    I think Midnight in Paris is deserving of every penny it makes and then some! Sure we could argue the merits of what a movie deserves to make in relation to others, but in that perfect world would ANY of the world’s highest grossing movies be deserving? Probably not many.
    Midnight In Paris was a pure delight to watch and remains my favorite film of the year thus far. Sure, it might be a cream puff of a movie that is sweeter than it is nourishing but its simple charms work like magic and thats why so many people are falling in love with it. What more can we ask for?

    • Liz

      It’s funny that you called it a cream puff because I misread the word “trifle” in Owen’s second sentence as “truffle. (Think chocolate, not fungus. Must be lunchtime.) It was light and enjoyable and may not be the most substantial thing one has encountered, but given the choice it is something that people would choose on a lark.
      If we think that it waters down the body of Woody Allen’s work, well, our opinion doesn’t really matter, does it? And if Woody thinks so (not to say he does; I haven’t heard one way or the other), then he shouldn’t have made it and taken that risk. Either way, I am glad he did make it because I enjoyed it very much.

    • Sean Elliott

      This was the most cynical article that Owen has ever written. 20 years of reviewing films and now he is asking for incubus in his entertainment. According to Owen, sweetness is overrated. This time, you’re worse than Lisa — whom complained because Paris was too “Pretty” and not enough of the littered, crowded city. Fantasy, Owen, fantasy.

    • AK

      Agreed. Of course the film had its flaws. (Notably, weren’t any female characters who were compelling and/or not plot devices. And the ending does kind of get weighed down in a parade of “look who’s playing who!” cameos. [Adrien Brody as Dalí... *shudder*]) But name me a movie—Woody Allen or not—that doesn’t. Overall, “Midnight in Paris” was funny, charming, intelligent and (surprisingly) very moving—one of the best films that Allen has made in ages. I don’t find it shocking at all that audiences have connected with it, and I don’t think there’s any shame in this being Allen’s top-grossing work (especially when it’s really just a convenience of inflation anyways).

      • mike

        I really don’t know why Owen is getting hung up on the #1 box office ranking for Woody. He conceeds that its only due to inflation and then dismisses it so he can rant! I would like to know, accounting for inflation, just where Midnight in Paris falls in the Woody box office derby. I’d say somewhere in the middle, which is about where it falls quality wise as well. I’m just glad Woody is still able to connect now and then with a large enough audience so he can continue cranking out his annual picture.

      • Bebe

        Exactly, mike. In 2011 $$, Hannah and Her Sisters grossed more than $100 million, as the other two, Manhattan and Annie Hall would have as well. While $42 million is good for Woody Allen, and it’s nice that he has what would be considered from him to be a “hit” movie, it’s nowhere as popular or profitable as the other three films. People, have some perspective.

      • Bebe

        I just checked. In 2011 dollars, “Hannah” would have grossed about $90 million, “Annie Hall” would have grossed more than $135 million, and “Manhattan” about $128 million.

    • lil Sebastian

      Didn’t see it, won’t see it, won’t rent it, will flip by it at the speed of light when it’s on cable.

      • Squishmar

        So you’re commenting here…why? At least state the reason why you won’t be seeing it.

      • Mark

        So you are passing up a comedy from one of the greatest directors in film history and you are bragging about it? You must be from Texas.

  • Katie

    It is a brilliant movie, wonderfully casted…everything about it was magnificent. I loved it from start to finish, and I don’t understand how any true Woody Allen fan would have any qualms with it being
    number one.

    • Sean Elliott

      Owen has a problem with the film being delightful. Were we supposed to think that you, Owen, would be happy if it made less money? Would seeing “Transformers 2″ making $500 million in the States make you happier to see?

    • tracy bluth

      I totally agree.

    • Natalie

      Not only was it wonderfully casted, but Allen also coached great performances out of this cast. Owen Wilson was able to play subtle, cerebral and gentle as contrast to his usual over the top comedic performances and Kathy Bates and Corey Stoll as Hemingway practically stole every scene they were in.

      • Dot

        It’s telling that the most successful Woody Allen movie is one where the woody character is played by a tall, blond and blue-eyed anglo-Saxon.

      • Megan

        It’s not “casted”. The simple past and past participle form of “cast” is “cast.” “He cast the film using mediocre actors.” “The film was wonderfully cast.”

  • Gina

    I loved Midnight in Paris. Enough to see it twice in theaters, in fact. Its charming, grown-up, a little high-brow without being downright snobby, and its just plain funny. And Adrien Brody has the funniest cameo in any movie in recent memory. What’s not to like? I also think it speaks to anyone who has compromised their actual dreams (which is probably 99% of people) and to people who see the magic in life. It was wonderful.

    • Steven

      I couldn’t agree more! The film was simply magical, and I too saw it in theaters twice. You leave the theater with a big smile on your face (at least I did).

  • bill

    I love Woody Allen, but disliked Midnight in Paris. I didn’t hate it, but it was insubstantial compared to most of his other films. If he had to have a big cross over hit, it should have been Match Point, which was much more satisfying.

  • BG 17

    I just hope that this news is an indication of the trajectory of Rachel McAdams career: that she is finally going to be seen as a bankable, A-list star. She has flirted with this kind of success, but it would be great to see her get her due for real…

  • MiaS

    Even though the movie has been out for a while, I don’t think you should have told the big secret in the first sentence. Yes, I know, when is it okay to tell? Well, just like The Crying Game or The Sixth Sense-NEVER. Part of the reason of why I loved it is that the trailer didn’t tell me the whole movie (a rarity these days) and I sat in a cool thater and the movie unfolded in front of me.
    THAT IS WHY IT IS DOING WELL! Adults want to go to the theater and be surprised and entertained.

    • vor

      You’re so right about adults wanting to go to the theater. Just love my super big screen. Puts you right into the movie.

  • Annie

    Rachel McAdams and Owen Wilson are likable actors who draw in an audience demographic who are not your usual Woody Allen fans. Hopefully this new audience will become future fans of Woody’s work.

  • Raffi S.

    Seriously, Owen?
    Get over it! Is it fair that Pirates 4 is the highest grossing Pirates movie ever and has now globally surpassed TDK? Is it fair that Transformers 2 will be highest domestic grossing TF film?
    Who cares!! Midnight in Paris, while may not be a brilliant masterpiece, is a great film and to have someone (a film critic no less) gripe about a great gem like this making money TODAY – in an age when crappy robot and pirate movies rule the day and the industry – is a truly disheartening.
    IF it soothes your soul, go with the adjusted box office numbers or admissions data. Midnight in Paris isn’t going to touch the three films you mentioned when factoring in inflation or total admissions.
    Please pick a bone with something worth calling out on.

    • Sean Elliott

      Raffi S. is right on the money. Owen and Lisa, take a vacation! I’m getting sick of the EW sell-outs, A- for theme-park-movie this, B+ for mediocre that, B for movies by Warner Bros. no matter how bad they are. “Midnight in Paris” = pretty, lustrous gem. Also, let’s stop taking for granted how much wittier it is than Transformers 2 and Pirates. Christ sakes, Owen!

  • franco mulchy

    dont agree with your pov of this movie. i have noticed that among my friends who saw it, only those who had no interest or knowledge of the cast of characters it revisits did not take to it. stick to judd apatow. sounds more like your speed. go woody.

  • T.J.

    Why is Gleiberman being such a (pardon my French) douchebag in everything he writes these days? Not that everything he writes should be an ode of joy about the glory of cinema, but all he seems to be doing is taking a ginormous dump on all films.

  • Glen

    I think Owen G. might be looking at Woody’s past work with, if not rose-colored glasses, at least pinkish contacts. I re-watched Manhattan recently, and while still a terrific movie, I don’t think the characters played by Michael Murphy or Meryl Streep are any deeper than the paper tiger “villians” of Rachel M’s family in Midnight. Thirty years from now, we might be able to judge where Midnight really falls.

  • John

    Y’know I’m so over this “old classic Woody Allen films” tripe I’ve been hearing for the last 15 years. Seriously get over yourself, Midnight in Paris is the best film I’ve seen this year, I could give two figs about it not being as good as Woody Allen’s old experimental films. Isn’t it enough that film makers like Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese are making good films.

    • MiaS

      Midnight in Paris and Bill Cunningham: New York are my two favorite films of the year.
      Glad to hear Midnight in Paris was your favorite too!

  • AM

    Seriously?! I can think of two recent Allen films that were ten times better- namely Vicky Christina Barcelona and Match Point. I think this is more of a testament to how awful the summer movie season has been. The only film that I have felt compelled to go spend money to see has been Bridesmaids.

    • m1

      Ugh, Vicky Cristina Barcelona? Better than Midnight in Paris? Really?

      • trent

        Really. And I loved Midnight in Paris.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with Owen G.

    “A comedy that masquerades as highbrow while delivering high concept” – perfect description.

    Also, Woody was supposed to film this in 2006 with David Krumholz as the lead. He REWROTE the part to fit Owen Wilson when Wilson needed to regain some indie-cred after selling his creative soul for the fat paychecks for the last decade or so. (“Hall Pass”, anyone?)

    Woody sensed box office potential so he rewrote the script for him.

    The film IS a trifle, and a bit of a sell-out itself, as it’s essentially a travellogue with a THIN plot, undeveloped characters and a “Hey, look it’s ‘insert 1920’s famous artist/writer here'” gimmick.

    The dumbing-down of America continues.

    Hey, even Woody Allen ain’t what he used to be, and seeing the movie is a heck of a lot cheaper than a trip to France.

    If people enjoy it, great but please don’t try to compare it to any of Allen’s classics.

    That’s just disingenuious.

    • Natalie

      Oh, come on, the success of Hangover 2 and Bad Teacher is evidence of “dumbing down” if you will, but the success of this movie in no way supports that. I don’t think that the drunk college students who went to see hungover and transformers could sit through 10 minutes of this movie…its subtle humor, knowledge of history and literary backbone makes it a witty, intelligent antidote to the brainless summer blockbusters.

      • bca

        Well I’m 19, and I guess that lumps me in the “drunk college student” category; but I just wanted to let you know that I absolutely adored ‘Midnight in Paris’. It’s one of the most charming movies I’ve seen in a long time. It told a story for the simple sake of telling a story, and I loved all of the literary and historical figures that popped up, Hemingway was hysterical. Also I neither saw Transformers or Hangover 2, so please don’t assume or accuse my age group solely for the downfall of modern Hollywood.

  • Chris Price

    1. Annie Hall
    2. The Purple Rose Of Cairo
    3. Manhattan
    4. Crimes And Misdemeanors
    5. Love And Death
    6. Stardust Memories
    7. Sleeper
    8. Hannah And Her Sisters
    9. Bananas
    10. Broadway Danny Rose
    11. Midnight In Paris
    12. Match Point
    13. Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex
    14. Radio Days
    15. Vicky Cristina Barcelona
    16. A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy
    17. Zelig
    18. Everyone Says I Love You
    19. Take The Money And Run
    20. Manhattan Murder Mystery

    That is all.

    • alan of montreal

      You left off Alice

      • Radzinsky

        And “Sweet and Lowdown” and “Another Woman” and “Mighty Aphrodite” and a bunch more. Lame list.

      • ASQuiros

        “Alice” is the movie “Midnight In Paris” reminds me of most. It’s also my favorite Allen film. I like fables as a rule, too. Is it that fables are too thin for your tastes?

    • JoeC

      I can argue with the list, or add to it, but man, just look at that list! Now take a look at what passes for good movies these days. Go, Woody!

    • Waynob

      You left off his best movie ever…,Bullets over Broadway

    • Alli

      What about Scoop?!!

    • Squishmar

      I don’t see my favourite… “Bullets Over Broadway.”

      • Lloyd

        So agreed. BOB is one of the funniest movies ever made. I thought he had a great mid 90s revival with that and Everyone Says I Love You. I wasn’t the biggest fan of Moonlight, but I’m just glad to see an Allen film doing well. I retreat to his movies when I want a simple, well made film with a good script and good acting. We desperately need more of that.

    • Strepsi

      @CHris Price — great list, I can not believe that both you and Owen left out my all-time #1:

      BULLETS OVER BROADWAY

      Continuously hilarious, yet with a great deeper them that ‘an artist creates his own morality’. Plus, Dianne Wiest: “The world will open to you… like a giant VAGINA!” lol

      • Mary MS

        I loved Midnight in Paris.

        It was the old Woody – sweet but vulnerable – not the one that’s infatuated with younger girls. I loved the movies of the 60s, such as Sleeper, but Annie Hall blew me away. I was pleasantly surprised that several decades later, seeing it for the first time in all those years – as did my daughter, who tends to dislike the fads of that era.

        I did not like Manhatten – the relationship with young Muriel (ahem) was embarrassing. And it was a but too close to Woody’s life for comfort. Yes, I liked Bullets over Broadway, but much of his “mature” work was, for me, too talky.

        But this was just fun – a lark – a very short piece. None of the famous people were on screen long enough to wear out their welcome – I’d have liked more of the Fitzgerald’s. (And Gertrude Stein was no caricature.)

        Here’s the thing: WE know, and Gil painfully knew, how all this would turn out. It was fun seeing these artists, many with tragic ends – Paris conquered by Nazis in just fifteen years – as young people, happy to be alive. And it was fun to celebrate the creativity. They didn’t know how it would end. We could be permitted perhaps a brief indulgence watching them in their innocence.

        I loved Cole Porter; I was amazed by Josephine Baker. Hemingway was something of a caricature, but for the humor – and he was so full of life and happy. Not the man who would shoot himself three decades later. I’d have liked to see more of the Hemingways, and the scene with Dali was hilarious.

        Woody seems to work with the same actors, and I found myself wondering what he will do next with this young ensemble.

        This was a good movie. With a satisfying ending. Don’t get that much any more. And Paris IS beautiful in the rain because the lights reflect in the rain.

        Yes, I really liked Midnight in Paris.

    • Danella Isaacs

      I’d say that’s a respectable list, even though I’d add ANOTHER WOMAN in there somewhere…

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