A brooding and grim encounter
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, October 8, 2010
In keeping with its titular allusion to fate and fortunetelling, Woody Allen's "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" opens with the paraphrase of a quote from "Macbeth." Life, as narrator Zak Orth tells us in the incongruously chirpy voice-over, is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury but ultimately signifying nothing.
In terms of fatalism, Shakespeare's doomed and gloomy Scotsman has nothing on Allen, a filmmaker who has long been known for his films' dark obsessions: death, the meaninglessness of life (and also sex). "Stranger" is no exception. It's filled with people stuck in, on the way out of or about to enter into unhappy and/or unwise relationships. It's grim and slightly implausible, but not unrelentingly so. It's a highbrow romantic farce, without the laughs.
As the film opens, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) has just left his wife of 40 years, Helena (Gemma Jones). She "allowed herself to become old," he says, with no sense of irony, to his much younger new flame -- and soon-to-be second wife -- Charmaine (Lucy Punch), a blowsy prostitute and gold digger.
Helena, after an attempted suicide, has found solace in the counsel of a clairvoyant (Pauline Collins). Hence the title.
Eventually, Helena takes up with Jonathan (Roger Ashton Griffiths), the eccentric, widowed owner of an occult bookstore. But they can't be together until Jonathan gets permission, via a seance, from his dead wife. "He left me for another woman," Helena laments at one point, "a deceased one. They're often the stiffest competition." It's a great crack, and in it you'll hear a rare echo of the old Woody Allen. But followers of his late work know not to expect too much more of it.
Meanwhile, Alfie and Helena's daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) is also fidgeting uneasily in her marriage to Roy (Josh Brolin), a doctor-turned-novelist who has had one good book and nothing since. Roy spends his days staring out their apartment window at a pretty neighbor, Dia (Freida Pinto). Incredibly, she reacts to his confession of almost stalker-level voyeurism by calling it "flattering."
Yeah, right. Maybe in the filmmaker's fantasies.
Let's not forget Sally, an assistant at an art gallery who's developing a hopeless crush on her unhappily married boss, Greg. But he's played by Antonio Banderas, so can you blame her?
Of all the relationships, Alfie and Charmaine's is the most fully fleshed. As Allen has written it -- and as Hopkins and Punch bring it to delightful life -- it's a bracing cocktail of comedy and pathos. "She'll put a charge in his battery," Roy tells Sally. Whenever she's on screen, Punch does the same for the film.
Into this romantic roundelay -- which otherwise sounds effervescently French, but is toned down by its dour London setting -- Allen stirs in enough of his now trademark theme of morality to keep things from ever getting too buoyant. A grave ethical transgression by one of the characters adds the most interesting plot twist, but the director squanders it, ending his film with an abruptness that will leave many unsatisfied.
Speaking of twists, Allen seems to see himself here as a modern-day O. Henry. There's a strong undercurrent of regret in the movie -- of people making wrong decisions in an attempt to do the right thing -- that smacks of "The Gift of the Magi."
"You see how ironic and beautiful life is?" Greg tells Sally, apropos of wanting something you can't ever have.
But wanting something you can't have or having something you don't want isn't really irony, is it? Or if it is, it's certainly not the tragic kind that O. Henry wrote about. The self-engineered disappointments and dead-end relationships that Allen deals in are more reminiscent of Alanis Morissette, whose definition of irony, in her 1996 hit single "Ironic," was: "It's a black fly in your Chardonnay."
Okay, that's a bummer. But like "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," it's hardly enough to ruin your whole day.
Contains obscenity, sexual themes and references to an attempted suicide.