After the summer glow of Vicky Cristina Barcelona and a return to New York for Whatever Works, it was back to London for Woody Allen with 2010's You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger - the title a prediction by a fortune teller in the film and a less than subtle reference to the tall dark stranger everyone will eventually meet in the end. This is another frustratingly adequate later Woody Allen picture that is neither great or particularly bad but merely sits somewhere in the middle. It's another Gatsby riff on upper middle class unhappy people, unrequited love and the meaningless nature of life and how we have to create constant delusions to make it bearable and stop ourselves from jumping out of the window. It begins with Leon Redbone's vocal rendition of When You Wish Upon a Star (a deliberately ironic choice of course) and revolves around a loosely connected series of characters. Roy Channing (Josh Brolin) and his wife Sally (Naomi Watts) are an unhappy bickering couple living in London. Roy is a failed novelist who once wrote a successful book a while back and is now anxiously waiting for news from his publisher about his latest manuscript. In a rather contrived development, Roy notices the beautiful musician Dia (Freida Pinto) in the building window opposite and eventually arranges to take her out to lunch. The fact that he's been gawping at her from his window and is a bit of loser doesn't seem to present a problem. Somewhat unbelievable. Sally meanwhile has a crush on her gallery-owner boss Greg (Antonio Banderas) but he seems to be having an affair with someone else. Sally's mother Helena (Gemma Jones) has problems of her own because her husband Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) has left her for a much younger woman - in this case a prostitute named Charmaine (Lucy Punch).
Alfie is having what could be termed a late life crisis. He's capped his teeth and aquired a fake tan. With his new girlfriend he is trying to cheat age and feel young again. A fortune teller (Pauline Collins) tells Sally she will meet a "tall dark stranger" but the only man she seems to meet is the shorty dumpy Jonathan (Roger Ashton-Griffiths), the owner of an esoteric bookshop. In the usual Woody Allen fashion, these circuitous relationships, infidelities and dalliances play out with one or two romantic twists. Will any of the characters come out of the story happy? Like much of his later work, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger is again not the most memorable Woody Allen film and feels like a mish mash of recurring themes and older pictures. There are distinct strains of Hannah and Her Sisters and Husbands and Wives here but they were simply much better films. You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger begins with Shakespeare's famous Macbeth quote about life being "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." This is Allen's own view of life and a rather apt quote for a film that doesn't amount to an awful lot and never really resolves itself in an very satisfactory way. I think that the use of narration in Allen's later films is becoming borderline annoying. It was fine to have Allen narrating himself in Annie Hall but it's a device that is maybe too overused in modern films and it does come off as awfully pretentious at times as Allen's dialogue doesn't always sound natural when spoken aloud.
His jokes are always great (although this isn't a very funny film) but his screenplays often contain flourishes that feel like they should be read rather than listened to. He seems less interested in London here than in his other recent visits and never really throws his camera around the city or looks for interesting things to shoot. You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger has a lot of interiors and leafy streets and could be any big city. The film is low-key and ensemble and often feels anachronistic (there are the usual selection of old vintage songs on the soundtrack) and hermitically sealed from the real world in the usual Woody fashion but it's never boring and has just about enough dramatic juice to make it worth your while. As ever, Allen has assembled an impressive cast although some fare better than others. Josh Brolin is fine as the dumpy and bitter novelist and (thankfully) less of a Woody Allen impersonator than others who have gone before him. Some of the lines Allen gives him are not terribly authentic though. "I've been exploring the erogenous zones of this delightful creature," says Roy when he introduces Dia to his friends. Would anyone ever say that in real life in that situation? It would have been more realistic if Dia had immediately punched him in the face. Naomi Watts probably fares best here with a perfect English accent and her scenes with Banderas are good although Banderas never feels terribly realistic thrown into the middle of this film as her suave boss.
You do get that slightly weird thing here (obviously it only feels weird if you are British) of seeing a host of familiar domestic faces in one of Woody's London films again. People that ordinarily you would never expect to see in a Woody Allen film. Pauline Collins, Meera Syal, Philip Glenister, Anna Friel, amongst others. Anthony Hopkins is rather affecting as the desperate Alfie, trying to roll back the clock and find romantic fulfillment before it is too late. He gets far more than he bargained for though and will probably discover that money can't buy you happiness or love. Hopkins seems too intelligent to be such an idiot but then the film is about personal delusions. One slight problem I think is that Sydney Pollack was more convincing as the life crisis with much younger girlfriend character in Husbands and Wives and had a much better script to work with. Gemma Jones is excellent though as Helena and Allen seems to like her so much he almost overuses her in the film. Helen reminds one of previous (elder) woman characters in Allen films who to take stock and assess their life again or go through an emotional crisis. Gena Rowlands in Another Woman and Geraldine Page in Interiors. You will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger is well acted and watchable but ultimately not much more than that. You don't get any extras with Woody Allen films apart from a trailer and at the time of writing can buy this for about a fiver.
Well here it is: Woody Allen's 40th feature-length film - a director, writer so gifted and full of new ideas and characters that he can somehow manage to churn out one film every year. With "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" Allen finds himself once again in London (his fourth time, to be more precise), and is surrounded by sad, unfulfilled characters going through their own versions of a "midlife crisis." Of course when looking at the age of say, Antony Hopkins or Gemma Jones, the term might be a bit of a stretch, but the idea remains the same. Everyone goes through their own little existential crisis, and as a way of coping, Allen introduces something new - he juggles with the idea of faith and the supernatural. Never too vigorously of course, and the light-hearted way he treats the subject matter goes to show he doesn't take these things too seriously. The title also carries with it a jokey tone of prophecy, rightly signaling for what's to come.
Helena (Gemma Jones) is a fidgety, insecure divorcee who is struggling to cope with the fact that her husband Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) left her for a much younger, hotter blonde, Charmaine (Lucy Punch). She finds some consolation in a psychic, Cristal (Pauline Collins), who is quite obviously a fraud. Everyone knows this, even Helena's daughter Sally (Naomi Watts), but she goes along with it since it makes her mother seem so much more comforted and relaxed. Cristal only says what Helena wants to hear, most probably to hold on to her client, but can be oddly sympathetic at the same time. Helena is drawn more and more into this psychic world, and whenever her world becomes a tad too difficult to bear, she relies on Cristal and her "wise words" to keep her from falling apart. So Helena's conditions are improving every fortune-telling session, but Sally and her husband Roy (Josh Brolin) have tension of their own. Roy, a one-hit author with a medical degree has a writer's block and cannot finish his latest book. Sally is finding it hard to make ends meet and takes a job as the assistant of a handsome gallery owner, Greg (Antonio Banderas). As her eyes slowly start to wonder and stare more longingly at her boss, so do Roy's. Opposite his flat, a young musicologist in red Dia (Freida Pinto) sparks his interest. What starts off as an innocent flirtation soon develops into something more serious, with the growing strain in Roy's marriage and the continuous unannounced visists from his mother-in-law driving him more and more towards Dia's direction.
Allen's later works have not been met with the rave critical interest that his older, more seasoned efforts were. He disappoints yet again, because what his latest lacks is the outstanding humour that made the likes of "Annie Hall," "Manhattan," and "Hannah and her Sisters" unique and charming. There film doesn't provide nearly enough laughs to interest the audience in what he has to say. The name Woody Allen on a poster promises a quirky romantic comedy so when the script comes up short, there is bound to be disappointment. It's not completely devoid of humour though - whenever Jones is on screen she is delightful despite her over-bearing, tiresome nature. You wouldn't want anyone like that as your mother, but at least on camera she provides a lot of laughs, largely thanks to Allen's farce-like approach in portraying the psychic sessions.
Everyone is miserable and that's a given fact. But a lot of the characterisation doesn't build up or develop more than that. Sally and Roy are both tense and we all know why - money is tight and Roy is showing no sign of ever succeeding in his writing career. They have years of fighting under their belt but it never feels substantial enough to be strongly involved in the central plot. Alfie is taken by an "actress," (a term he comes up with to mask the fact that she is in fact, a prostitute) most possibly for her looks (tall, blonde, big boobs), but no-one can be stupid enough to be completely attracted to her exaggerated, incredibly selfish, bimbo personality. Absolutely no effort seems to have been put in to widening the range of her emotions - she is just a slut. So their little "affair" is hard to believe, means hardly anything, and Alfie's sudden change of mind towards the end is rushed and clichéd. So what about Roy and his "muse"? They bond over some afternoons, there is a profound connection that results to...nothing. Roy ends up plagiarizing a friend's work and Dia doesn't seem to have such a big part in his career or his life. So she is again, entirely inconsequential.
Once again Allen has assembled a star-packed ensemble that any director would die to work with. He has always had a blessing with nabbing the right actors for the right roles and here, even without his usual inclusion of Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow and Scarlett Johansson, it works just as well. Banderas is one smooth-talking foreign boss, Brolin and Watts do long-standing resentment well, Hopkins cannot be faulted as the old, retired man with the absurd wish to take back his youth, Punch provides some off-beat, albeit slightly repetitive comedy as the new gold-digging wife, and Pinto isn't given a whole lot to do to explore her talent. The one stand-out here is Jones, and it comes as no surprise that there were talks of getting an Oscar campaign going for the Brit actress. She is the funniest, most memorable character in the cast, and definitely the most interesting, three-dimensional one. Jones is brilliant at capturing all the subtle changes to her character: something arises every psychic session and her character is either strengthened or weakened. Meeting a widowed man who also believes in the supernatural gives her the confidence she much needed after the dissolution of her marriage, and the slow but steady progress of her life is shown extremely accurately by the actress.
Nothing startlingly new is explored here - even the newly introduced theme of the human psyche and afterlife remains deeply uninteresting and although necessary for some of his characters, there is very little consistency in who Allen wants to really focus on. It's an ensemble piece for sure, with different characters interlinking into each other's lives for significant impact. They do collide, but to no attention-grabbing result. What these characters are after is clear - some sort of purpose in life, the satisfaction and happiness of knowing they have succeeded in life. The irony is, the film itself lacks purpose and towards the end hardly anything has been achieved. Allen's usual cynicism is also present here, although nowhere near as effective as when Allen put himself in front of the camera as the neurotic New Yorker struggling with his life. The cast may be incredible in general, but even they cannot quite bring to life the unsure, uneven script without turning some of its content into a series of uninvolving sequences.
It's a missed opportunity, but not a complete waste of time. The many wordy scenes that rely purely on the talent of its cast work to its best possible standard, and we should at least be grateful that everyone is capable of handling all the never-ending conversations with no awkward moments. "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" is not one of his more engaging late works, and certainly doesn't measure up to some of the classics he has written and directed in the past. But thanks to Allen's uncanny eye for casting and his ability to get some of the best actors working in the industry to sign up to him films, this London-based rom-com is worth a look for any Woody Allen fans out there.