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You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

October 24, 2010

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

Woody Allen’s latest venture — his fourth shot in London — is, well, it’s a Woody Allen movie, that’s for sure. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger calls to mind the old saw that people who like this sort of thing will find that this is the sort of thing that they like.

Of course, there’s an ensemble cast. Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) is in the throes of a mid-life crisis, in which he has cast off his wife Helena (Gemma Jones) for the much younger Charmaine (Lucy Punch). His daughter with Helena, Sally (Naomi Watts), works as an assistant to (and is developing a crush on) Greg (Antonio Banderas) in his art gallery, which barely supports her and her medical student-cum-struggling writer husband Roy (Josh Brolin). Roy, for his part, is smitten with Dia (Freida Pinto) whose flat window he can see from his own. And Helena (remember Helena?) seeks the solace of a fortuneteller, which leads her to Jonathan (Roger Ashton-Griffiths), the widowed owner of an occult book shop. Well, maybe he’s not the proverbial tall, dark stranger, but these things are never very precise, now are they?

Allen sets up this house of cards with the utmost delicacy, and then we get to watch it collapse just as delicately; sunrise, sunset. Again: if you like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing that you like. It’s not that it’s at all badly-done, but that it feels more like quoting what a Woody Allen film is supposed to be rather than actually being its own film.

The actors all do their respective jobs admirably. The casting was pretty on-the-mark, though we almost had Nicole Kidman in Punch’s place; no idea what the casting director was thinking there. Brolin is at the attractive miscreant end of his range; Watts brings out her frustrated wife character; Banderas is utterly charming, in exactly the sort of role that pulled him away from the action-heroes that marked his early American career.

Zak Orth’s narration does help keep things straight and sets up the next set piece with a minimum of fuss, but it calls to mind nothing so much as Ron Howard’s narration from Arrested Development. In a series so baroque and out-of-left-field a narrator is all but essential to keep from giving half of each episode over to recaps, but this is a comfortable, predictable soap opera, and it ends up feeling like we’re being read a bedtime story.

Much is made in the framing of the quote from Macbeth about life being “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. Besides being exactly the sort of trite reference a high school student should be embarrassed to use, Allen evidently expects us not to know anything about its original context. This Stranger is indeed a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets its hour (and a half) upon the screen and then is heard no more. What exactly does Allen want us to conclude about him, if he’s the tale-teller?

Worth it: There are worse ways to spend one’s time, and while predictable it has its charms. But really you could do just as well renting Anything Else.
Bechdel test: pass.

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