A nebbishy screenwriter who longs to publish a novel, Gil (Owen Wilson) is tentatively working on a book set in a nostalgia shop — much to the open frustration of Inez (Rachel McAdams), his all-too-modern, rich-girl fiancée. She has a tendency to talk about Gil in catty, judgy tones as if he's not in the room even when he is, and she makes no bones about preferring Gil the casher of Hollywood paychecks to Gil the wannabe artist.

The couple has accompanied her parents on a trip to Paris in advance of the wedding, and if Gil, who once gave up a chance to live there for real, had his way, they'd never leave. “I tell ya,” he tells his future wife, “if I had just stayed here and written novels, instead of getting into that whole grind of writing movie scripts …”

The latest in a long line of actors playing a “Woody Allen type” in a Woody Allen film, Wilson, starring in Allen's new feature, Midnight in Paris, bends his nasal, recognizably Texan drawl into an exaggerated pattern of staccatos and glissandos that's obviously modeled on the writer-director's near-musical verbal cadences.

Wilson's performance adds an extra layer of distance to a script thick with allegory. A deceptively light time-travel romance, Midnight uses fairy-tale devices as a way to get to the filmmaker's familiar, real life–sourced themes: desire as both magical salve and instigator of insanity, and the fear of death, which makes us forget past miseries just long enough to pursue pleasures that will almost surely end in pain.

One night, as Inez flirts with an obnoxiously pedantic American academic (Michael Sheen), Gil drunkenly wanders off alone. A car pulls up, the strangers inside offer Gil a ride, and the next thing we know, Gil is at a bizarre party full of flappers dancing to Cole Porter. When a vivacious young couple introduce themselves as Scott and Zelda, Gil realizes he's been transported to Paris circa the 1920s. Before the night is through, he begins a flirtation with Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a stunning serial muse, and forges a bond with Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), who offers to show Gil's novel-in-progress to his friend and mentor, Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). Gil runs out to grab his manuscript — and promptly gets lost in the present. But the next night, the clock strikes midnight, another mysterious car drives up, and Gil is once again transported to his personal nostalgic paradise.

Allen only lightly milks the sci-fi potential of his premise, barely probing into the wonky details of how Gil's presence in the past could alter the space-time continuum (the one time his reticence feels like a missed opportunity: when Gil gives Zelda Fitzgerald a Valium and she subsequently disappears from the film). The high concept is a means, not an end: Allen sends Gil traveling through time not because he's terribly interested in the mechanics and fantastic possibilities of interdimensional travel but because it's a backdoor way to investigate the problem of time — our inability to slow it down or stop it, to make anything good last or prevent inevitable misery — within ordinary life.

Shot by Darius Khondji, who collaborated with Allen on the much-maligned Anything Else, Midnight is a striking study in aesthetic contrasts. The present-day is white, fluorescent, blindingly bright — the atmospheric equivalent of a hangover. In the past, it's permanently just before last call, every room pulsing softly with smoky, amber light. No wonder Gil, drunk on the rush of being able to control his transport through time (and often just drunk), gets cocky and attempts to close the gap between past and present, for the first time in his life going after what he really thinks will make him happy. But ephemerality proves to be a curse in every epoch.

Allen's contemporary output, which has remained steady, thanks to foreign financing and tax credits, is often unfairly dismissed as trifling, even though his films of the '00s have been shot through with an intense, cumulative despair. Here he gives the episodic ebb and flow of satisfaction an unexpectedly upbeat spin. Or does he? Midnight concludes with a rushed coupling that could be read as falsely optimistic. Or maybe it's just the beginning of another crest of hope and momentary joy, doomed to dissipate just after the end credits — or, more likely, in the next film.

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS | Written and directed by WOODY ALLEN | Sony Pictures Classics | ArcLight Hollywood, Landmark

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