Gemma Jones (left) and Naomi Watts in Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
Written and directed by Woody Allen
Starring: Gemma Jones, Naomi Watts, Lucy Punch, Pauline Collins, Frieda Pinto, Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins, Antonio Banderas
Run Time: 98 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated R
Anyone who thought Woody Allen couldn’t get any more cynical than he was in the 1997 Boschian nightmare that was Deconstructing Harry should check out his latest annual cinematic analysis of human behavior. The die-hard cynics among Woody’s fans may find You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger a corroborating message, but I was so depressed after leaving the theater, I had to crawl to the nearest video store and rent a Marx Brothers movie in order to revive myself.
As a devoted Woody Allen fan, I usually enjoy his satirical jabs at the meaninglessness of it all, and his comical look at humanity’s attempts at finding a way out of the metaphysical void. I even liked Deconstructing Harry. But Woody Allen usually offers up his cynicism with a healthy dose of humor and compassion. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is one long nose-thumbing at humanity, a bitter look at how the search for happiness either ends in disappointment, or, perhaps worse, hinges on some form of delusion. And besides that, the movie just isn’t funny enough.
One reason for the unmediated gloom that runs through You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is the amount of disappointment in the air. No one is happy, and their unhappiness is weighed down by the sense that they are all so blinded by their dreams that they become the instigators of their own failures. It’s rare to see a Woody Allen film where there isn’t a single character who finally comes to terms with reality and accepts life as it is. There is no one to buoy the movie, to keep it from sinking into despair.
The excessive gloom factor, however, may have as much to do with an accidental result of some unfortunate miscasting as it does a septuagenarian’s grumpiness. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger needs broad characters in order to work as comedy, and much of the cast seems to be lost trying to play it straight in a chamber drama. There are some bright spots within this tangled web of Ibsen versus Molière. The stately Gemma Jones is hilarious as the soul-searching-and whiskey-over-tea preferring-Helena, whose husband Alfie has divorced her in a vain attempt to recapture his youth and start all over. Pauline Collins (from Upstairs, Downstairs fame) does a very funny turn as the fortune-teller con artist who offers Helena the usual stock predictions to make her feel better (from whence the movie’s title).
The other actors, however, never seem to quite understand that this is a Woody Allen universe they’re in, which requires a certain outrageous performance and a certain deadpan seriousness in which to couch it. Somehow actors need to play it straight while giving us the wink at the same time. Judy Davis knew how to do it; so did Patricia Clarkson in Whatever Works. Diane Keaton could do it in her sleep. Penelope Cruz won an Oscar by both nailing and sending up the stereotype of the hot-blooded Spanish artista in Vicky Christina Barcelona. Even Lucy Punch, as the blonde floozy who fleeces the newly buffed and Viagra-pumped Alfie, occasionally gets the broad comedy right, keeping herself face-up in the surrounding muck. But as fascinating as she is to watch, Naomi Watts just can’t lift the character of Sally, the unhappily married daughter of Alfie and Helena, beyond the pathos of drama.
The men fare even worse. As Sally’s washed-up writer of a husband, Josh Brolin looks and acts like a serial killer, and a white-haired Anthony Hopkins may look the part of an old man having a belated mid-life crisis, but when he needs to act the buffoon, he can’t. Only when Alfie has been suckered for the last time does Hopkins’ performance begin to fit his character. Fortunately, Antonio Banderas, as Sally’s sexy, debonair (and married) boss, is around to give the film a little charm amid the testosterone.
For all his bleakness, Woody Allen has nevertheless kept his films buoyant with some hint that life is worth living after all, but You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger leaves a truly bitter aftertaste. What Woody Allen gave us at the end of Annie Hall was the feeling that love was worth the inevitable heartache; at the end of Deconstructing Harry, at least the ending allowed for the restorative power of the imagination. Here, all he seems to be giving us is suffering. I have enough of that without going to the movies.