MIDNIGHT IN PARIS "Here we go: Old Custer, by Eli Cash. Chapter One...."

THERE'S A SCENE in 1977's Annie Hall where Woody Allen is stuck in line behind a jackass who's blathering loudly about philosopher Marshall McLuhan. Allen conveniently drags McLuhan himself into frame, who informs the blowhard, "You know nothing of my work." Then Allen looks at the camera and says, "Boy, if life were only like this!"

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That might as well be the title of the new Midnight in Paris, and Allen riffs on that gag in a scene where four Americans gawk at a Picasso in a Paris museum. The insufferable Paul (Michael Sheen) drones on about the painting before Gil (Owen Wilson) politely corrects him with absolute authority. How does Gil, not an artistic scholar by any stretch, know the story behind the painting so well? One of the pleasures of Midnight in Paris is that its fragile plotting works best as a surprise, so it might be best not to explain it in too much detail. Let's just say that Gil, a modern-day screenwriting hack—played here with shaggy, lackadaisical likeability by the shaggy, lackadaisically likeable Wilson, in a role that suits him better than anything not written by Wes Anderson—finds himself in the orbit of not just Picasso, but countless other artistic and literary heavyweights from 1920s Paris.

Midnight is a lightweight fantasy, sure, but it's nothing less than a shocking return to form for Allen, who's pulled himself out of his recent slump of truly awful movies by revisiting the magical whimsy that worked so well in The Purple Rose of Cairo. (That's the one where Jeff Daniels climbs off the movie screen to romance Mia Farrow.) Allen's back in control here, stirring fantasy and reality into something that—despite the film's muddled logic and complete disregard for historical fact—is both comic and winningly romantic. The result is that Midnight in Paris, while far from flawless, is one of the most purely enjoyable films Allen's ever made.