Combustible Celluloid
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With: Antonio Banderas, Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins, Gemma Jones, Freida Pinto, Lucy Punch, Naomi Watts, Pauline Collins, Ewen Bremner, Christian McKay, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Anna Friel, Alex MacQueen, Zak Orth (narrator)
Written by: Woody Allen
Directed by: Woody Allen
MPAA Rating: R for some language
Running Time: 98
Date: 05/15/2010

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Split Ends

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Woody Allen begins his 40th feature film with a line from Shakespeare: "a tale... full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." With this he deliberately lowers expectations, as if to say, don't put too much weight into this movie. In reality, I expect Allen is more interested in looking at the randomness of these events, and the truly haphazard, arbitrary way in which we can fall in love and choose our lifemates. This is in keeping with Allen's last half-dozen films, in which he becomes something of a puppetmaster, watching with a lifetime's worth of experience as a bunch of fools get themselves into trouble. They should know better, but they don't. Despite the accumulated wealth of human experience and knowledge, everyone has to make his or her own mistakes, especially where the heart is concerned.

Allen's latest follows several couples, beginning with the newly separated Helena (Gemma Jones) and Alfie (Anthony Hopkins). Suddenly peering into the abyss, Alfie decides to split up and start a new life as a bachelor. He strikes his only connection with a ditzy, gold-digging prostitute, Charmaine (the sexy and hilarious Lucy Punch). Meanwhile, Helena begins seeing a fortune-teller (Pauline Collins), which helps soothe her sadness, and she is told she will meet someone new ("a tall dark stranger," perhaps).

Meanwhile, Helena and Alfie's daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts) is married to Roy (Josh Brolin). Roy has a medical degree, but quit that to write a book. His first book was successful, but now he toils on a fourth book, and it appears he may have been a one-hit wonder. He has become difficult to live with, and with money low, Sally gets a job at an art gallery, working for Greg (Antonio Banderas). Greg is also unhappy in his marriage, and Sally develops a crush on him. At the same time, Roy develops a crush on a bewitching girl in the next building, Dia (Freida Pinto, from Slumdog Millionaire), whom he hears playing guitar across the alley. He invites her for lunch and begins a flirtatious affair with her. Of course, she is already engaged to be married.

Allen throws in a subplot about Roy being tempted to steal an amazing manuscript from a writer friend, which doesn't particularly fit the rest of his themes, and it serves to make Roy out as a lazy, shady person. We don't feel that he actually deserves the love of Dia, and this sours the idea of random, arbitrary love. However, the rest of the movie clicks together well. Allen's dialogue is meticulous like a stage production; it's slightly mannered, but the style fits the mood. Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography also fits; it's restless and a bit overcooked, ratcheting up the emotional tension in each scene. This is not funny Woody Allen; these people are at their wits' end and beyond making jokes. Most of the characters swill liquor, constantly and quickly, as if the pain is just unbearable. Lucy Punch plays the only funny character, and she's brilliant; she thinks she's found a bit of heaven, mainly because she's more interested in the monetary results of her relationship than she is the emotional fulfillment.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger brings Allen back to England, after a stop in Spain for Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) and a trip back to New York for Whatever Works (2009). Something about the atmosphere there brings out the best in Allen; perhaps his jittery neuroses clash well with the stiff-upper-lip English attitudes, or perhaps -- now that he's 74 -- he likes a bustling metropolis that's just a tad slower-paced than New York. Oddly, Roy is the only American in the cast, and it begs the question: is he the "Woody Allen character"? Is Allen just as angry today as he was back when he made Deconstructing Harry (1997)? I don't think so... if he's angry, it's over the way the media has treated his personal relationships, as well as the general, ongoing impression that his career is in decline.

No, I think Allen has reached a place that Yasujiro Ozu reached earlier in his life: a place of reflection and acceptance. Life is what it is, and it rarely changes much, at least in the things that matter. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger isn't particularly profound; it's a bit of sound and fury signifying nothing, but at least it's an interesting moment of pondering from someone who's been there.

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