Pat­terned pre­cog­ni­tion

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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

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