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DAVID BIANCULLI, Host:

Keeping to his extraordinary pace of making a film a year, Woody Allen returns with a new comedy called "Midnight in Paris," which arrives in the U.S. after premiering at this year's Cannes Film Festival. The movie stars Owen Wilson as a screenwriter visiting Paris who magically travels back in time to meet his artistic heroes of the 1920s.

Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Woody Allen isn't religious, but he has a rabbinical side, and over the last decade his films have become more and more like Talmudic parables for atheists. On the surface, these movies are streamlined, even breezy, and they often have voice-over narration to get the pesky exposition out of the way fast. Philosophically, Allen has settled on resignation, a cosmic shrug: There's no God, no justice, people are inconstant, life is meaningless - so where do you wanna eat?

I have a problem, though, buying into the worldview of someone whose world is a closed ecosystem. There's no evidence that Allen lets any contemporary culture penetrate his hard, defensive shell. Music stopped in the '40s, if not earlier, ditto literature, ditto film - with a pass for select European directors. He seems locked in a daydream of the past.

The good news is that Allen has made the lure of nostalgia the theme of his supernatural comedy "Midnight in Paris," which might be why this is his best, most emotionally pure film in over a decade. It's a romantic fantasy that's also a sly act of self-criticism.

The time-traveling hero, Gil, played by Owen Wilson, is a successful Hollywood screenwriter on holiday in Paris with his brisk, upwardly mobile fiancee, Inez, played by Rachel McAdams. Gil considers himself a hack and, to Inez's horror, wants to write novels instead of movies. How he wishes he could be a writer in Paris - better yet, Paris in the '20s, alongside Scott and Zelda, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and all those other giants living high, yet creating enduring works of art. It would certainly be preferable to being a tourist in Paris with Inez and her old professor, Paul.

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RACHEL MCADAMS: (as Inez) I hope you're not going to be as antisocial tomorrow at Versailles.

OWEN WILSON: (as Gil) How was I antisocial?

MCADAMS: (as Inez) Oh, please. I mean you could totally tell you didn't want to go.

WILSON: (as Gil) Well, I mean they're your friends and I have to admit, I'm not quite as taken with them as you are.

MCADAMS: (as Inez) He's brilliant. You know, I had such a crush on him in college. And Carol's very bright.

WILSON: (as Gil) Honey, he's a pseudo-intellectual, just a little bit.

MCADAMS: (as Inez) Gil, I hardly think he'd be lecturing at the Sorbonne if he's a pseudo-intellectual.

EDELSTEIN: You can almost hear the familiar Woody Allen cadences, yet Owen Wilson isn't the usual East Coast intellectual Allen hero, and he makes the lines his own. Apart from Mia Farrow's in "The Purple Rose of Cairo," this is the finest lead performance in an Allen film that wasn't by Allen - and finer than many of Allen's, too. You sense the vein of wistfulness under his stoner cool, the longing for definition behind his spaceyness(ph). It's a thrilling moment when he sits forlornly on some steps in the rain at midnight, a vintage automobile rumbles by, the champagne-swilling occupants invite him in, and he's suddenly back in the '20s.

How? No explanation. Allen just breezes past all that, the way he did in "Purple Rose" and, before that, in his great '70s short story, "The Kugelmass Episode," happily eliminating the sci-fi wheels and pulleys that tend to suck up so much screen time. Gil is just there - counseling Scott about Zelda, drinking with Hemingway, showing parts of his novel to Gertrude Stein, and falling in love with a woman named Adriana, played by a stunningly beautiful Marion Cotillard. Adriana bonds with Gil over his love of the past - except the past she loves is the 1890s and not her vulgar present. His '20s ideal woman hates the '20s - a bitter irony.

Allen doesn't do anything particularly interesting with Scott and Zelda - my guess is he's too in awe of them. But his Hemingway, played with forthright manly-manliness by Corey Stoll, is a riot; and as Gertrude Stein, Kathy Bates proves that in an absurd context, playing it straight can make you funnier than a thousand clowns.

BIANCULLI: not for the Parisian '20s, but the days in which Allen regularly turned out freewheeling, pitch-perfect tall tales in print and onscreen. The movie is so good it takes you back to those days, which were the days, my friend.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

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