“You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger” is one of those Woody Allen movies that bolsters the conviction that sometimes he doesn’t spend enough time on his scripts. More a diagram for a movie than a work that feels fully realized or inhabited by real people, this London-set comic melodrama is poplated a sorry lot of unhappy folks who switch partners and fail by chasing misguided illusions. Thanks to the attractive cast and some clever scenes, it’s a notch above “Scoop” and “Whatever Works” among the Woodman’s recent output, but very far indeed from “Match Point” and “Vicky Christina Barcelona.”
Allen may have regretfully said in Cannes that he’s too old to any longer play the man who gets the girl, but that hasn’t stopped him from writing a septunegerian character who does, even if the man pays for it in every conceivable way. Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) is a newly confirmed fitness buff who dumps his longtime wife Helena (Gemma Jones) for vulgar bimbo Charmaine (Lucy Punch), a professional escort who is no doubt counting on her 40-years-older mate to keel over much sooner than he intends to.
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The devasted Helena puts all her faith in a fortune teller (Pauline Collins), much to the consternation of Helena’s daughter Sally (Naomi Watts), whose marriage to one-time best-selling author Roy (Josh Brolin) is teetering under the weight of his current unpublished manuscript. While Sally begins fantasizing about an affair with her art gallery boss Greg (Antonio Banderas), Roy pursues an unlikely relationship with young beauty Dia (Freida Pinto) who has recently been the object of his voyeuristic attentions in the window across his apartment courtyard.
That none of these relationships is either a good idea or destined to succeed is readily apparent to anyone other than those directly involved, which stacks the deck both narratively and thematically; it mitigates against any viewer rooting interest in seeing these romances blossom even briefly and it makes all the characters into fools for wanting these mismatched mates in the first place. It’s one thing to dramatize the folly of human endeavor, but the author, who employs an omniscient narrator here to bridge some gaps, this time feels more like a vindictive Greek god having his way with some hapless mortals, or even a mean child playing cruel games with small animals.
Set in the usual high-toned Allen world of galleries, nights at the opera, fancy restaurants and expensive cars (even if some characters do confess to economic difficulties), “Tall Dark Stranger” has stretches of lightweight engagement, especially in scenes where Watts or Hopkins are involved. Watts is vibrantly alive to every stage of her character’s dramatic arc, amusingly expressing angry exasperation at her mother’s ludicrous belief in the gospel according to the fortune teller, gradually warming to the possibiity that she might actually dump her husband for the handsome Latin man with whom she spends most of her day, and cracking emotionally when everyone in her life grievously lets her down. Hopkins has humiliations of a different nature to portray; having installed his radically superficial young lady in an expensive new flat, he now has to contend with everyday life with her, an experience that includes club outings, waits for the Viagra to kick in and justified suspicions of the trainers down at the gym.
Late-on, Allen throws in an insidious plot twist the likes of which he has occasionally used before, a reprehensible moral as well as legal crime that, knowing Allen, one isn’t at all sure the character will be punished for or not. The transgression is quite novel, its trump card a nice little jolt.
Unlike in “Match Point,” one sees little of London this time, and the picture, which was shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, has an odd yellowish tint to it, at least in the print shown in Cannes, that seems neither appropriate nor attractive.