The first scene of "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger", Woody Allen's newest film, brings us Helena (Gemma Jones), a frumpy woman in a London taxi cab en route to visit a psychic. "You're bathed in a rose light," the psychic croons to Helena after plying the elderly woman with a tumbler of scotch. "You've got nothing but good coming to you."
Would that Allen's film promise the same. Certainly the cast is stellar: Josh Brolin is Roy, a cranky failed novelist with a beer gut and unruly hair; Naomi Watts is his frustrated wife, Sally; Anthony Hopkins is Sally's father and Freida Pinto plays Dia, a lovely neighbour across the courtyard. The story concerns a number of romantic entanglements and disentanglements, each following a thoroughly predictable trajectory. Sally develops a crush on her boss, a sensual gallery owner played by Antonio Banderas. Roy is drawn to the much younger Dia. Sally's mother falls in love with an occult bookshop owner obsessed with his deceased wife. The film ends with a scene oddly reminiscent of a life-insurance commercial.
The flaws of "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" are minor but many, and ruinous in the aggregate. Its hip, London-dwelling 30-something characters unironically attend opera, drink Irish coffees, and say things like, "What's eating you?", none of which ring particularly true to that demographic. The married Roy spies on his affianced neighbour Dia in her underwear and then inveigles her to lunch in order to admit as much. "Can I make a terrible confession even though I hardly know you?" he asks, speaking a line that no woman in her right mind wants to hear. Confoundingly, Dia is charmed by Roy. She's also charmed when he later fantasizes about the life they'll lead together, presumably after leaving their respective partners: "I write, we open wine bottles, we make love," he babbles. Dia's eyes widen in adoration. Oh, brother.
If the film's characters are anachronisms, the armature of "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" is positively creaky. An unnecessary and miscast voice-over pops up to deliver clichés ("And just when you think things can't possible get any worse...") in a voice as grating as a carnival barker's. A nameless friend of Sally's appears only when the story requires some hurried exposition ("Sally, don't get a crush on your boss"). As the film devolves into recycled bits of philosophy and bad puns, a viewer begins to suspect that Woody Allen has spent the past 20 years locked in a basement with only his own oeuvre for entertainment. "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" is neither honest, complex nor fresh. One is tempted to dismiss the film as little more than a stylish sitcom, except that the bar for sitcoms is considerably higher these days than it once was. The more damning comparison might be to, well, other late-period Woody Allen films. How times change.
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"You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" is in cinemas in New York and Los Angeles, and will soon have a wider release
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