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REVIEW | Leaving New York Again, Woody Allen Does Fine with “Stranger”

REVIEW | Leaving New York Again, Woody Allen Does Fine with "Stranger"

With each new movie Woody Allen directs, it grows increasingly clear that leaving New York was the best decision he made in ages. Two years ago, Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” freed the quintessentially neurotic comic from his out-of-touch depictions of American urbanity by letting Spanish flavor meld with the vibrancy of his speedy dialogue. Back on familiar turf with the Soho-based “Whatever Works” in 2009, Allen resorted to dated reference points and half-baked scenarios.

[Editor’s Note: indieWIRE first reviewed Woody Allen’s “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” at its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Sony Pictures Classics will release the film in limited release beginning Friday, September 22nd.]

Abroad again with his latest venture, “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” Allen achieves another competent melding of comedic and dramatic elements by avoiding New York specificity. While not explicitly funny in every scene, “Dark Stranger” bears a shrewd backbone soaked in irony. It’s decent without being quintessential.

Unlike his more audacious genre attempts such as “Match Point,” however, “Dark Stranger” at least feels like the usual routine. The story opens with the typical classic jazz soundtrack and credits written in Windsor. Then comes the inevitable literary reference: This time, an unidentified narrator reads a quote from Shakespeare. Once Allen delves into the plot, an enjoyably screwy series of relationships gone awry, he sticks to the familial dysfunction he does best. It more or less works – at least better than “Whatever.”

The typical Allen line-up mainly involves Helena (Gemma Jones), a divorced older woman whose solace comes from a notably fake fortune teller, Helena’s freewheeling ex Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), and their daughter Sally (Naomi Watts). In the vein of “Hannah and Her Sisters” (if not nearly as profound), Allen’s cast extends to several lovers, both legitimate and otherwise: Alfie dates a klutzy prostitute (Lucy Punch), Sally flirts with her boss (Antonio Banderas) and her sleazy husband Roy (Josh Brolin) falls for the girl next door (Frieda Pinto).

At least half a dozen subplots develop around these overlapping incidents of romantic confusion, and sometimes they collide or simply drift away. Overall, though, Allen manages to deliver another amusing peek at his animosity toward the idea of a lasting relationship. Responding to his mother-in-law’s excitement over a prophesy that her new mate will soon emerge, Roy delivers the movie’s title in a sarcastic tone. “You will meet the tall dark stranger we all eventually meet,” he says, drawing a conclusion that Allen claims to intend as a reference to death.

At once morbid and carefree, Allen riffs on the same old themes, but here he engages more specifically with sex. Talk of contraceptives, AIDS, herpes and viagra pepper his characters’ endlessly nervous chatter, while the script packs together so many affairs it becomes difficult to remember just how many are actually taking place. Thankfully, the chaos adheres to an organizing principle. Allen generally makes a movie a year, often at the expense of quality, but “Dark Stranger” has more polish than usual. If his prolific nature means he’s doomed to redundancy, than “Dark Stranger” is one of the better repeats.

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