You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: R foe some language
Running time: 128 min.
Cast: Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins, Gemma Jones, Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto, Lucy Punch, Pauline Collins, Anna Friel, Ewen Bremmer
Director: Woody Allen
Screenplay: Woody Allen
Set in London, this ensemble comic drama from Woody Allen (Whatever Works, Scoop) follows a recently divorced elderly mother and father, pessimistic Helena (Jones, Bridget Jones 2) and the man who left her because he refused to get old, Alfie (Hopkins, The Wolfman). Alfie is looking for a relationship to make him feel invigorated, a younger woman who might bear him the son he never had, which he finds in hot-to-trot prostitute, Charmaine (Punch, Hot Fuzz). Helena isn't as optimistic about her chances at a new life, so she's been seeing a psychic, a charlatan (Collins, Shirley Valentine) hired by Helena's art-gallery expert daughter, Sally (Watts, The International), to feed her positive thoughts. Sally, who is married to a once-successful, now-struggling author named Roy (Brolin, W.). finds her own marriage strained when Roy becomes preoccupied not only with the status of his latest novel, but also he's started to carry a torch for a young woman he's been spying on across the courtyard from his bedroom window (Pinto, Slumdog Millionaire). When Sally's boss, who is in a disappointing marriage of his own, begins to show interest, she begins to think it might be time for a major life change of her own.
Another solid, though no doubt to be underappreciated Woody Allen film that features solid characterizations, great performances, and plenty of juicy bits of interest. Trouble is, for Allen, the more familiar you are with his early works, the more you'll think this as nothing he hasn't done before. A bit of a double edged sword for a prolific auteur like Allen, as he sticks with his strengths as a filmmaker but when you've made as many films as he has about this subject, it's difficult to find enough wiggle room to emerge with an original work. However, for those familiar with Allen's work, it's like comfort food to watch a film like You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, as his writing is still crisp, even if the directions he travels with the characters seem to be revisitations.
Allen benefits from superb performances, particularly from Hopkins and Jones, who anchor the film with the believability and finesse that veteran actors often provide. Watts is also excellent. If there's one miscast actor, it might be Josh Brolin. He delivers as fine a performance as possible under the circumstances, but it's an ill fit to consider him a semi-cosmopolitan author transplanted to Europe who has the playboy charisma to tell a young woman that he's been watching her through her window for weeks and hopes he catches her in the act of undressing and have her feel flattered. He's too emotionally gruff and physically imposing to be "Cary Grant" enough to believe charm his way into a woman's bed with such words without her filing a restraining order immediately.
Underneath the story is a theme of following fate vs. trying to carve your own path in life. Decisions made for you, even if it's by a phony psychic, sometimes make you progress and have the courage to make those decisions with faith you might not otherwise have been courageous enough to make. However, giving in to one's impulses does often result in making one's decisions worse, as happens to many of the characters in this storyline. Themes of former lives contrast with the fact that each of these characters choose to embark on new lives, independent of their old ones, sometimes to the betterment, but often they carry their own complications and pitfalls.
So, we learn that life is too chaotic to guarantee happiness, but that sometimes the ability to think outside of our own box in order to find a new path is warranted in order to achieve success. It's a fatalistic view, but at this point in Allen's life, throughout all of the trials and tribulations, he knows best that his decision-making hasn't always resulted in the betterment of his life, and most have become his foibles. And, like Allen, the characters here seem to burn bridges to their past lives only to regret it once they've crossed over to their new one.
Allen utilizes narration, a character unrelated to the events on the screen, much as he did in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, to give the effect of whimsy and that pre-destination of some higher force in the know of the fates of these characters, much in the way that the psychic purports to know. The narration isn't intrusive, but does impart the theme of the film, that the tale, like life, in the infamous one from Shakespeare's "Macbeth", is sound and fury, signifying nothing. Life is a series of connected but unrelated events that, despite different paths taken, and different results experienced, aren't always a guarantee of what's yearned for.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger will probably meet better to those who like Allen's neo-Bergman style, but aren't overly familiar with his body of work much more so than hardcore fans awaiting a return to the days of Annie Hall. And it certainly won't win over those who couldn't stand Allen even at his best. However, for people in the middle, who enjoy witty serio-comedies that are imbued with great characters, interesting asides, and choice bits of wisdom, Stranger is a thoughtful comedy with more depth than most comedic endeavors released today. In other words, you might like this, or you might not, but you can't make a new friend - even if that friend is a friendly cinematic diversion - until you're willing to meet a stranger.
©2010 Vince Leo