Allen’s lat­est is dark but not that tall

Los Angeles Times - - Calendar - BETSY SHARKEY betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

Hu­man foibles, in ma­jor and mi­nor keys, are the chords that Woody Allen has been pounding for roughly 45 years. So it should come as no sur­prise that in his new frothy and fit­ful ro­man­tic black com­edy, “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” ev­ery­one must take a spin around the dance floor with the dis­il­lu­sion­ments, de­cep­tions and dis­sat­is­fac­tions of life.

Allen has put his lat­est moral­ity and mor­tal­ity tale in the hands of his usual com­ple­ment of fine ac­tors, who play in­ter­lock­ing cou­ples, each fraught in their own way. It starts with the dizzy de­light of Gemma Jones as He­lena, the ma­tri­arch in the med­dling mid­dle of it all. By the time we meet her, she’s at­tempted sui­cide af­ter be­ing di­vorced by her way­ward hus­band, Al­fie (An­thony Hopkins), who like his cin­e­matic name­sake hit midlife won­der­ing “What’s it all about?” and it wasn’t about He­lena.

Now He­lena is set­tled into a needy de­pres­sion helped by co­pi­ous amounts of al­co­hol that’s put her daugh­ter Sally (Naomi Watts) on edge, and sent her son-in-law Roy (Josh Brolin) over it. But then they are barely tread­ing their own trou­bled wa­ters with Sally ready to trade ca­reer for a child and Roy des­per­ate to res­ur­rect his as a nov­el­ist with one long-ago suc­cess fol­lowed by and a string of fail­ures since.

An­other strain teas­ing out the ten­sion is that most hu­man of all foibles and one of the filmmaker’s fa­vorites — a be­lief in true ro­mance that he loves to sys­tem­at­i­cally de­stroy. Thus the nec­es­sary com­pli­ca­tions for our cou­ples come in fetch­ing forms: Roy’s is Dia (Freida Pinto), a beau­ti­ful enigma he spies from his win­dow; Al­fie’s is a brassy blond named Char­maine (a very funny Lucy Punch); Sally’s is her el­e­gant art-gallery boss, Greg (An­to­nio Ban­deras). And He­lena’s is that stranger on the hori­zon.

Giv­ing the film its name and its tone is a clever psy­chic con named Cristal, played with a cal­cu­lat­ing em­pa­thy by Pauline Collins, whom you may re­mem­ber from her Os­car-nom­i­nated turn as a 40ish woman on the verge in 1989’s “Shirley Valen­tine.” Here her tim­ing is as spot-on as Cristal’s pre­dic­tions for He­lena, which is to say she keeps ev­ery­thing merry and mov­ing to­ward an un­tidy end where no deed — good or bad — goes un­pun­ished.

The story is set in cur­rent-day London, Allen’s movie home away from home in re­cent years. Leav­ing the safety of Man­hat­tan at first proved in­vig­o­rat­ing in 2005’s “Match Point,” but less so for “Scoop” and “Cassandra’s Dream,” which fol­lowed. A brief so­journ through Spain for 2008’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” came with a fresh life. “What­ever Works,” back in Man­hat­tan in 2009, didn’t. “Tall Dark Stranger” is some­where in be­tween.

The film is Allen’s third, and best col­lab­o­ra­tion yet, with di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy Vil­mos Zsig­mond, a leg­end in his own right (“The Deer Hunter,” “Close En­coun­ters of the Third Kind”). In “Tall Dark Stranger,” the slices of life cut be­tween the tra­di­tion­bound Brit — house­wife He­lena in her dowdy flow­er­prints and dated hats — and the con­tem­po­rary most point­edly in Al­fie’s blind­ingly white pent­house styled for his new Vi­a­gra-in­fused life. Yet for the most part Zsig­mond cre­ates a faded wall­pa­per soft­ness to the look that gives the film an al­most ethe­real charm.

That same soft­ness ex­tends to other parts of the pro­duc­tion in ways not as sat­is­fy­ing. Where once Allen’s play­ers would have drawn blood, some­times lit­er­ally given the filmmaker’s af­fec­tion for killing off in­con­ve­nient char­ac­ters (“Crimes and Mis­de­meanors” among them), here they pull their punches. The di­a­logue drifts into the petu­lance of bick­er­ing chil­dren, rather than the bit­ing bril­liance that marks the best of his work.

In us­ing a lighter touch, he’s made it harder to root for — or against — any­one in par­tic­u­lar with the ex­cep­tion of Jones, a vet­eran Bri­tish char­ac­ter ac­tor prob­a­bly best known in the U.S. as Brid­get Jones’ flighty mum who blows into each of her scenes like a blithe spirit. Brolin, al­ways bet­ter with a sharp edge, suf­fers, and Hopkins nearly fades away. Even death when it drops in feels de­fanged and dis­tant — in séances, in sec­ond-hand re­ports from friends.

The­mat­i­cally, Allen moves his un­happy troupe through life’s ups and downs in ways that will feel fa­mil­iar to any­one who’s fol­lowed his work — per­haps the curse of such a long ca­reer. This kinder, gen­tler Allen is still clever, still amus­ing, and the film it­self is a con­fec­tion tempt­ing enough to con­sider a taste. Yet there is that empty-calo­rie letdown af­ter it’s over. Maybe it’s time to book an­other trip to Spain.

COSTARS: Freida Pinto and Josh Brolin are in Woody Allen’s en­sem­ble cast.

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