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July 6, 2011 - Rick Chatenever
Most of us didn’t make it to the Cannes Film Festival last month, so the Maui Mall Megaplex is offering the next best thing. It’s got two filmed-in-France comedies playing amidst all the noisy screens showing “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.” Hollywood may know to churn out a $400 million opening weekend, but when it comes to romantic fantasies that don’t require exploding robots, we remain indebted to the French.
PG-rated “Monte Carlo” is the one for teens; PG-13-rated “Midnight in Paris” is the one for more mature audiences — but only in the sense that mature memories, and attention spans, last longer. Demanding hotel guest Dominique Strauss-Kahn may be back the headlines to remind us not all Frenchmen are charming … but it’s nice to notice the U.S. has at least outgrown its taste for freedom fries.
“Monte Carlo” stars Selena Gomez as Grace, a resourceful Texas teen who has saved up her waitressing tips to celebrate her high school graduation with a trip to the City of Light. Accompanying her is fellow waitress and adventure-seeking best friend Emma (Katie Cassidy), and her uptight new stepsister, Meg (Leighton Meester), to play chaperone.
Once in Paris, their quel dommage package tour takes a turn for the better after Grace is mistaken for a spoiled English heiress. Before you can say Oh Mon Dieu, a private jet is whisking them off to a week of high-class gallivanting on the French Riviera.
How can such mistakes occur? Je ne sais pas.
Think “Hannah Montana goes to Gay Paree,” and you’ve got the starting point for writer-director Thomas Bezucha, who targets his modern fairy tale to teenage girls and their moms in a safe, reassuring PG-rated way — sort of the flip side of “Taken.”
“Monte Carlo’s” comedy may be tepid and timid, but it can’t diminish the glamorous, intimidating spell all things French cast on less cooth Americans. With its theme of mistaken identity, its brushes with first love, its hairpin turns on Riviera highways and its sexually charged fireworks over Monte Carlo rooftops, the film pays homage to bygone decades when elegant icons like Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren strolled these boulevards.
“Monte Carlo” inadvertently illustrates the difference between those spellbinding movie goddesses and the teenage marketing machines of today. But at least the the likable young stars of “Monte Carlo” manage to stay cute and wholesome, and to not break anything fragile — especially dreams — on their European vacation.
At the other end of the age chart, Woody Allen is in a more wistful but no less adoring mood, turning his own infatuation with Paris into one of the best movies in his five-decade career.
With his own goofy enthusiasm, Owen Wilson is an unlikely but surprisingly fitting stand-in for the Woody Allen character. The whimsical fantasy casts him as a successful hack Hollywood writer in Paris with his disinterested fiancee (Rachel McAdams) and her rich, boring parents. Thanks to magic from a place between sci-fi and fairy tales, he falls into a time warp that transports him back to the ’20s when artists with names like Hemingway, Picasso, the Fitzgeralds or Cole Porter frequent the cafes, and the golden age really is tinged in gauzy gold.
Staying behind the camera, crafting street scenes into loving postcards, picking perfect music and evoking the ’20s in tenderly rendered vignettes, Allen displays less angst and more confidence in his storytelling. All the allusions to the larger-than-life talents and temperaments of those times — from Kathy Bates’ nurturing Gertrude Stein to Adrien Brody’s flamboyant Salvador Dali —invite repeated viewings. “Midnight in Paris” is the long-awaited vindication that that college degree in English lit or history wasn’t in vain.
Leaving his beloved Manhattan and staying on the other side of the camera, “Midnight in Paris” lets Allen revel in something bordering on hero worship for these eccentric artistic and literary greats whose lives were dictionary definitions of “panache.”
His familiar themes — the tragicomedy of love and lust; the place of Art; the bottomless chasms between men and women; life’s nagging mysteries and the inevitability of the final curtain — are all here, along with satiric barbs in the era age of Tea Party politics. But the tone is as relaxed as it is brilliant.
Not knowing all the literary references — yes, that’s T.S. Eliot sharing your taxi — might make modern movie audiences feel a little lost in the winding streets and tinkling cafes. But, like the awestruck Wilson and the slyer filmmaker looking over his shoulder, even if you don’t know the players, the city’s allure is timeless, and remains impossible to resist — especially for simple yet sweet Americans.
• Rick Chatenever will be on vacation for the next several weeks. His column will return Aug. 18.
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