Tuesday, September 21, 2010

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger: Woody Allen Movie Review

It’s become a matter of routine clockwork that around this time every year the new film from Woody Allen finds its way to cinema screens around the United States. Usually his films open earlier in Europe, as was the case with his latest, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, his fourth London-based film.

As much as I have liked some of Allen’s recent films, none of them have made as indelible an impression on my mind as his earlier classics. I’m relieved and satisfied to accept that he seems to have permanently left behind the sad gimmicks that marred his work in the first half of the last decade: hysterical blindness; hypnosis; parallel stories, to name a few.

That said, there is something of a gimmick employed in Stranger (in the form of a fortune teller rather unsubtly named Cristal Delgiorno), but it doesn’t form the basis of the plot. Instead Crystal (Pauline Collins) serves as the catalyst of change for Helena Shepridge (Gemma Jones). Helena is recently divorced from Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), who suffered a late-life crisis, started to get fit and scored himself a new bachelor pad – but lacked the friends to fill it.

Alfie and Helena have a daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts), who is in a somewhat stale marriage with Roy (Josh Brolin). Roy could have been a doctor but opted to become a novelist who can’t seem to finish his next book. Gun shy writers is a common theme in Allen’s work, which seems somewhat ironic coming from a man who has averaged a feature film per year for the last 40 years – all of them original screenplays. Sally wants to start a family and is suddenly finding herself attracted to her new boss, Gary (Antonio Banderas), at the art gallery where she works. Meanwhile Roy is distracted by the lovely woman in the window across the alley from Roy’s study window. This woman is Dia (the beautiful Freida Pinto from Slumdog Millionaire).

Until Dia makes her entrance in the film, the color palette is decked out entirely in earthy browns and off-whites. She is never seen without a bright red ensemble. She is the lifeblood that injects Roy with a sense of desire and purpose. But it’s really an illusion because as deeply as Roy falls for her, it’s based on nothing more than her classical guitar playing and penchant for getting undressed with the shades up. But in a Woody Allen film that’s usually all it takes. His characters fall in and out of love at the drop of a hat, usually falling in love and make life-altering decisions without any good reason.

But I’ve spent far too much time on the characters in Helena’s life when she is the true center of the story. In fact the omniscient narrator all but tells us that at the outset. Anyone who complains at the end that too much is left unresolved would do well to remember that this is Helena’s story. All the other stories – Sally and Gary, Roy and Dia, Alfie and his new wife Charmaine of less than half his age – are ancillary. And as much as everyone derides Helena’s faith in the power of a charlatan psychic, Cristal’s predictions all turn out more or less correct, making Helena’s life more pleasant at the expense of everyone else’s misery.

What I can’t quite figure out is Allen’s attitude toward fortune telling as either a business practice or as a kind of spiritual healing (even if you don’t believe in it, you have to admit it has the power to provide comfort to those who do believe – sort of like religion). Roy is loudly outspoken in his contempt for the practice while Sally is happy to allow her mother the peace it brings her – that is until Cristal has advised Helena to take a decision that will have dire consequences for Sally, at which point she sounds off on the conniving practices of a woman who would prey on the weak-willed and stupid. It is in this scene that Allen’s screenplay goes off the rails a bit. Sally’s diatribe against her mother doesn’t ring true. It feels mean-spirited, forced, not at all like the kinds of things this character would say to her mother.

Allen’s screenplay stumbles in its tone several times as well. Some scenes come across as too manic. Okay, manic has been one of Allen’s calling cards over the years, but it has always been a mania that is culturally specific to Jews. However, in a scene involving the families of an engaged couple in the same room together when one calls off the engagement, the comedy is flat. It feels entirely out of place, not just within the movie but in the wrong city on the wrong continent. This is a scene that could have come out of Radio Days. Julie Kavner should be the hysterical mother. Where is Alan Alda to touch his fingertips to his head in disbelief? A scene like that makes me wonder if Allen dug this screenplay out of his 1970s drawer like he did with last year’s Whatever Works, another film that was slightly out of time and place.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger isn’t the worst of Woody Allen, but it’s just bland and uninspiring enough to make you long for his glory days. Or at least something as charged as Vicky Christina Barcelona.

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