'Stranger' Is Simply Familiar Woody
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
In spite of writer-director (and less-and-less-frequent performer) Woody Allen's oft-stated pessimism, there's always something almost comforting about the cinematic realms he creates from that perspective. If you're a character in an Allen film, male, approaching middle age, dissatisfied in your marriage and struggling in your career, and a woman moves into the apartment across the alley from your own -- you know, the one with the near-unobstructed view into the bedroom window -- it's an absolute certainty that not only will that woman be young and gorgeous, but also brilliant. And she will likely possess some extremely enviable skill. Allen continues the trend in his latest, "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger." In the case of Dia, who moves across the way from cranky, once-promising, now all-but-failed novelist Roy, she plays the classical guitar, almost as pretty as Segovia does (and, for all I know, that's a recording of Segovia running over the miming of string-plucking). And she's here incarnated by the lovely and young and putatively exotic Freida Pinto (of "Slumdog Millionaire" fame), the latest in a line of fledgling Serious New Actresses to be, um, tapped to enact a dark scenario from Allen's artistic vision/fantasy life. It should go without saying that while the charismatic Josh Brolin does his damnedest to sloven up to signify Roy's dissatisfaction with Existence, while simultaneously retaining some charm in order to convincingly woo Pinto's character, his dilemma is watered down a bit by that fact that his wife, Sally, is played by the eminently appealing Naomi Watts. It's Woody's world, and some very attractive people happen to live in it.
"You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" is one of the more palatable pieces of Woody's late-period output, which for me veers between the moderately tolerable/enjoyable ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona") and the borderline unwatchable ("Match Point," "Whatever Works"). The "La Ronde"-influenced story shifts focus between subsets of a related group of characters and their amorous and fiscal crises: Ray can't get his next book to be any good; Sally has to put her dreams of career and family on hold to bring home the bacon by working as an assistant to a slick, enigmatic gallery owner (Antonio Banderas) she finds herself attracted to; Sally's dad, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), has a late-life mortality crisis that spurs him to do the usual stupid male things, including taking up with a vulgar gold-digging call girl (Lucy Punch); while mum Helena (Gemma Jones) finds solace in the "insights" of a phony "fortune teller" (Pauline Collins).
Like "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," this picture uses a wry, detached narration to set the scenes and comment on them, and as with the earlier film, this helps keep "Stranger" relatively light and breezy as Allen "dramas" go. Shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, a longtime Allen co-conspirator, the film has a solid, pleasing, but not fussy look: It appears to have been shot pretty quickly, which again is all for the best, for when Allen's forced by circumstance to keep things fluid, he can't indulge in some of the portentous, schematically symbolic visuals that made his early departures from pure comedy, such as "Interiors," so eye-rollingly frustrating.
But still, there is a settled quality here -- Allen haters will just call it "laziness," and they won't necessarily be wrong -- that makes matters a bit pat and weirdly self-congratulatory. "Shakespeare said, 'Life is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,'" the narrator says at the very beginning of the film. Actually, that's not quite accurate. Shakespeare wrote a character that said that life is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. For Allen to quote the line as if Shakespeare actually believed it -- and we really have little if any idea of whether he did or not -- is, for Allen, a slightly smug way of finding a buyer for his own stated worldview, which results here in several plot twists meant to elicit a reaction from the viewer along the lines of "What incredible irony." For this viewer, it was more eyebrow-raising-chuckle-worthy than "incredible"; your mileage, as they say, may vary.
For all of its predictability, the material is not unintelligent; it's reasonably well-crafted, and contains moments of genuine wit -- as well as, alas, the touches of datedness that are also standard-issue in an Allen film these days. (People keep referring to the character played by Pauline Collins as a "fortune teller" or a "mind reader." I believe the contemporary term is, and has been for some time, "psychic.") Some of the observational dialogue has good sting: "'Appropriate,' there's always that word," one character observes with not untoward ironic disgust after receiving an unsolicited piece of judgment. When Roy mocks Sally's mum for giving money to the "fortune teller" because she tells her "what you want to hear," the mother shoots back to Roy, "Well, you take my money, and you don't tell me what I want to hear," which shuts him up but good, and says something compelling about these characters and their presumptions and self-bestowed privileges. And the actors really do great work at pitching what Allen's selling, particularly Watts and Banderas in a scene of missed communication that does, finally, rank with some of the best stuff Allen's put on film. So there's that.
Glenn Kenny is a writer living in Brooklyn. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com.