You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, dyspeptic romantic comedy, rated R, Regal DeVargas, 3 chiles In a London bathed in a custardy light, intelligent and not-so-intelligent people drift inexorably into wrong choices in love and life. As Woody Allen grows older, he doesn’t mellow, he yellows. What is it with the canary hue that infuses the world of this movie? Is it Allen’s jaundiced view of the human condition? Is it his conviction that when life gives us lemons, there we bloody well are?
In this film, at the core of Allen’s set of characters in search of the nonexistent secret of life is a dysfunctional British family. There is Helena (Gemma Jones), whose 40-year marriage to wealthy businessman Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) has just ended. Alfie, who has suddenly hit the wall of awareness of mortality, is trying to exercise himself into a younger body and find a younger body to get into. Their daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) is married to a failed American novelist, Roy (Josh Brolin), who left medical school to pursue the fickle writer’s muse. His writer’s block has him turning more and more of his attention out his window and across the courtyard, where a pretty woman of Indian extraction, Dia (Freida Pinto of Slumdog Millionaire), sits in her window wearing a red dress, playing the guitar, and taking off the red dress. Sally has to take a job to try to make ends meet and finds herself growing disturbingly attracted to her boss, the handsome but married gallery owner Greg (Antonio Banderas).
Life, as Shakespeare put it and Allen’s omniscient narrator (Zak Orth) reminds us, is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Allen, who back in his Annie Hall days commented on the poor quality and small portions that life serves us, has not grown more optimistic, and he has for the most part dispensed with the jokes. Tall Dark Stranger is not unfunny, but the humor by and large is darkly ironic and situation-driven, designed more for sighs and shakes of the head than laughs — although there are some of those, too.
Another poet Allen quotes is Keats, this time in disagreement. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” the poet of the Grecian urn told us. Allen debunks that one. We can’t handle the truth. The reality Allen depicts here would be better served by W.B. Yeats: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold …”
Helena deals with her abandonment by consulting a fortuneteller, the chirpy Cristal (Pauline Collins, whom some will remember from Shirley Valentine). Cristal tells Helena what she wants to hear: the future looks bright, this is a wonderful turning point in her life, she has lived before, and she will meet a new love. All of this, plus the occasional glass of scotch, bucks Helena up wonderfully, and she frequently drops in unannounced at her daughter’s apartment, dispensing her new and unwelcome insights on past lives and love.
Alfie deals with his midlife crisis by rejecting the “appropriate” women with whom his friends try to fix him up and falling for an actress named Charmaine (Lucy Punch). Charmaine is less than half his age, blond, all legs, and the sort of actress who specializes in the faked orgasm. (He: “Was it good?” She: “Didn’t you hear me screaming?”)
INone of it is going to work. The frying pan may not be any great shakes, but the fire is no better. Allen’s philosophy at this stage of his life reflects the fly caught in the spider’s web: struggling only makes it worse. His attitude toward the spiritual is far less contemplative and embracing than that of fellow cinematic con Clint Eastwood in Hereafter. Past lives, telling the future — it’s all bunk, a chump’s game. But then so is everything else. Cristal may be a charlatan, feeding an old lady the sort of opportunistic tidbits of tripe that keep her coming back and spending her money, but in the end Helena’s choices are no worse than anyone else’s. She doesn’t meet a tall, dark stranger, but she meets a pudgy, fair stranger (Roger Ashton-Griffiths, who looks enough like Toby Jones that it’s hard to believe he’s not the same guy reflected in a fun-house mirror) who shares her spiritual inclinations. He is the recently widowed proprietor of an occult bookstore who is described as “very devout in a New Age way.” While the clever people are flailing about and digging themselves deeper into the muck, these two muddle happily toward some kind of late-in-life fulfillment. Life doesn’t have to make sense. In fact, it can’t.
Allen, who turns out a movie a year whether he needs it or not, is not always brilliant, but he’s almost always reliable. This is a good, enjoyable, sometimes laugh-out-loud-funny movie. It won’t return Allen to the days when his name turned up on the Academy’s award list with a Metamucil-like regularity. But while we wait for the next Vicky Cristina Barcelona, this is a perfectly good fix for the people who look forward to Allen’s movies. And next year? Oh, I see wonderful things happening, a turning point …
What’s it all about? Anthony Hopkins; above, Antonio Banderas, Naomi Watts, and Anna Friel