Tall Dark Stranger
- Rated R
- Buy the BD
All photos © Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed by Bob Westal
confession: I grew up pretty much idolizing Woody Allen. In his older age, however, I've come close to abandoning him. A disappointing evening with his traditional jazz band in the 90s left a bad taste in the mouth and not only from the overpriced food at Michael’s Pub, but also because Allen took all the solos while being by his own admission by far the worst player in his own band. The scandal that left him with a much younger wife who is also his ex-significant other's adopted daughter was distasteful in a different way, though I'm a firm believer that a creator's personal morality and his work are two entirely separate matters.
The really serious sin from a fan's point of view was his apparent and growing inability to make good movies in the wake of his new life. Despite the debacle of "Celebrity," some of his late 90s films were enjoyable enough, but things looked bad in the new millennium. I couldn't get past the hugely unfunny trailers full of recycled jokes for films like "Hollywood Ending" and "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion." The supposed return-to-form of "Match Point" was watchable enough and it was interesting seeing Allen work anywhere other than his treasured island of Manhattan, but the tragicomic attempted thriller felt mostly like a reiteration of past Allen comedy-dramas.
More recently, the ex-stand-up comic's ultra-pessimistic worldview in interviews made me wonder if he'd given in to despair entirely. As the press notes remind us, "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" opens and closes with a famed quote from Shakespeare's Macbeth. I bet you can guess which one. It has something to do with life being a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Allen elaborates on that idea in the notes, discussing the apparent pointlessness of life and the inevitability of eventual death for each of us individually, for mankind as a species, for earth as a planet, for our universe as a plane of existence. So why crank out one movie after another, year after year after year? "It's a distraction that has its own little challenges and consequently keeps my mind off morbid thoughts." Now that's funny.
Still, after seeing "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" – and catching up with 2008's funny and sultry "Vicky Christina Barcelona" in preparation for this review – I'm giving Mr. Allen a serious second look. Despite everything, these movies actually work. At least as a screenwriter and director, Woody Allen hasn't let his fear of the grim reaper and admitted spiritual malaise ruin his ability to entertain and provoke.
Another multi-story ensemble piece following the rough blueprint of his Oscar-winning "Hannah and Her Sisters," the London-set "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" expresses the realization that believers might sometimes legitimately have it better than unbelievers, despite the fact that the unbelievers are usually more accurate. Formerly married Helena (Gemma Jones) and Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) are both people of faith, but of very different sorts. Alfie is certain that youth can be obtained even in old age through never-ending vigilance in regard to diet and exercise as well as general all-purpose denial. Abandoning his vulnerable and loving wife for the crime of being a bit more fatalistic about getting older, and finding the senior dating pool to be filled with nothing but old people, he takes up with a crass prostitute-actress (the very funny Judy Punch). Helena, for her part, seeks solace in the hands of an upbeat and sweetly empathetic fortune teller (Pauline Collins) recommended by her daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts). Sally knows the woman is a fraud, but hopes having something to believe in will be good for her mother's horribly frayed nerves.
Sally has her own frayed nerves, being saddled with Roy (Josh Brolin), an ex-medical student who abandoned medicine to write a hit novel a decade prior and has been struggling ever since to write another one, while mostly refusing to do other work. Finally finishing a book after several years and nervously waiting for word from his publisher, the nasty and embittered Roy distracts himself with an increasingly earnest flirtation with Dia (Frieda Pinto), the astonishingly beautiful young musician across the way. Meanwhile, the understandably impatient Sally finds herself increasingly attracted to her wealthy, handsome, and poorly married gallery-owner boss (Antonio Banderas).
To be honest, a great deal of "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" is not all that terribly funny. The important thing here, however, is that it's not because jokes are noticeably falling flat, but because Allen is far more interested in telling his story than in straining for jokes. That's a very good thing. Comedy is about more than laughs.
It's a rather complicated story, however. As with the fable-like, Eric Rohmer-influenced "Vicky Christina Barcelona," Allen makes heavy use of a narrator to smooth over narrative rough patches. Though he can be horrifically arch – try watching "Melinda and Melinda," if you dare – and narration is practically an invitation to be obnoxiously arch, here it's mostly sidestepped by actor Zac Orth's nicely offhand reading of Allen's words.
Indeed, more often than not, Allen seems to sidestep his worst habits. For one thing, I'm delighted to report that there is no obvious "Woody" figure in this movie – or, if there is one as written, the character of the death-fearing, young wife-desiring Alfie (not "Alvy") is so well executed by Anthony Hopkins that we rarely think of Allen. Given Allen's personal history, that's impressive.
Josh Brolin's broken-down novelist could also be a relative of the Allen stand-in played so nicely by John Cusack as a similarly under-gifted playwright in 1994's "Bullets Over Broadway." He is, however, free of a self-effacing slight stammer or any other Allenism. Brolin actually gets the film's biggest laughs towards the film's conclusions in a scene of brilliantly sustained gallows humor, but it's entirely earned and all the funnier for not feeling like it necessarily belongs in a Woody Allen movie.
This time, however, it's the women who really shine. Naomi Watts is one of the most reliable actresses around and she manages to keep her perhaps somewhat flatly written character engaging and sympathetic even if, at the end, she behaves in ways that are only marginally better than her increasingly estranged husband. As the prostitute-turned-housefrau, Lucy Punch is allowed to be extremely funny and more believable than her somewhat similar turn in "Dinner for Schmucks." Frieda Pinto of "Slumdog Millionaire" may be the one woman on the planet charming and beautiful enough to make us only partially despise a man for considering dumping Naomi Watts in her favor. What she sees in Josh Brolin's noxious and somewhat de-handsomed character is anyone's guess, however.
The real stand-out, though, is Gemma Jones as the credulous and ill-treated Helena. It's a startlingly sympathetic central performance as an aging woman desperately in need of illusions. Allen may have become embittered about human existence, but the film's forgiving attitude towards her understandable foibles is the most redemptive thing about "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger." That's a good thing because, as comedies about relationships go, Allen's latest is about as cynical and pessimistic as they get. Call it, "Love, Actually Not (Unless You're Delusional, Then Maybe)."
Forget that "return to form" we critics are always hoping for from Allen. Though he's smart to utilize the cinematography and production design services of two great old-reliables in Vilmos Zsigmond and Santo Loquasto to make his film a classy visual treat, there's no way Allen can or, even should, return to the form of past classics like "Manhattan," "Annie Hall," "Zelig," "Crimes and Misdemeanors," or (my personal Allen hobby horse) "Broadway Danny Rose." What's important is that, for all his ever-increasing insularity as a creator – the closest an Allen character ever gets to poverty even in these economically challenged times is depending on handouts from wealthy parents – Woody Allen has retained the ability to engage his audience with characters who are recognizable human beings, if not terribly likable ones. For me, at least, he is interesting again.