You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

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By Patrick Z. McGavin

Cannes Film festival: Out of competitionWoody Allen continues to make a new movie every year, but over the past two decades or so,  his work are best understood and appreciated not necessarily as individual units, but as variations of a series of overlapping and interconnected themes, stories and ideas.
 
His importance is not that of a great stylist, but a romantic sophisticate whose best movies are imbued with an intelligence and verve. Ever since “Match Point” five years ago inaugurated a new group of works shot outside of the United States, Allen has been assiduously reworking stories of romantic longing, sexual roundelays and a sense of drift particular to the emotional experiences of Americans removed from their familiar and native world.
 
He has become such a brand name, some of his late period works blur in the mind. Some of the plots and formal trappings are becoming a little familiar and overexposed; he finds an idea and repeats it, over and over, draining it of the necessary surprise or subtlety of expression. An Allen film is more distinctive by the sensibility and unmistakable imprint of its author.
 
His new comedy of manners, “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” is the fourth film he has set in London in the last six years. It seems less a city of the imagination than a 1930s programmer shot on New York soundstages. It feels like a London created entirely on backlots and rendered in impeccable production design, returning repeatedly to a familiar establishment shots and locations.
 
It is streaked with moments of intermittent laughs, colorful observations and a playful and open structure that allows some good actors to have fun with their parts. It never breaks through into the realm of something glorious, freewheeling and dangerous. It is a very becalming movie, funny, alert, well photographed and designed.
 
The drama is inert and musty, even occasionally frozen.
 
Allen’s most underrated talent is the carpentry of his screenplays. Typically the stories are enlivened by the novelistic and fluid structures employing his sharp gifts for creative exposition, in the manner of third-person narrators, flashbacks and remembered tales.
The new movie opens, like “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” with a narrator (abusing somewhat) Macbeth’s soliloquy (in the aftermath of his wife’s death) about a “sound and fury,” signifying “nothing.”
 
“Stranger” uses the rupture of a long-term marriage between Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) and Helen (Gemma Jones) as the jumping off point for its fresco entwining a group of characters and couples undone by sexual temptation, career disappointment and romantic drift. Alfie becomes obsessed with forestalling aging and turns to exercise to kick start his rejuvenation, effectively kicking his faithful and adoring wife to the curb. Devastated by her husband’s abandonment, she turns to a local mystic, or fortuneteller, for personal advice.
 
Their daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts), is an art curator blessed with excellent feel for new and emerging talents. To the great chagrin of her mother, Sally’s stuck in her own quagmire. Her marriage to handsome and engaging Roy (Josh Brolin) undermined by his financial irresponsibility and delusions of grandeur. He gave up a promising medical career to publish novels. After a fluke first novel, he’s haunted by crippling writer’s block and has been piling up rejection notices from publishing houses on the novel he is currently involved.
 
Both are soon tempted by the elaborately constructed fantasy models: Roy is voyeuristically drawn to a beautiful woman, Dia (Freida Pinto, of “Slumdog Millionaire”) who lives across the street from their apartment. Sally is trying to unknot her own developing fixation on her charismatic and handsome new boss, Greg (Antonio Banderas), a prominent London art dealer and gallery owner.
 
The film has pleasant and smoothly designed surface. It is largely a London removed from any known point of view or realistically imagined setting. This is not the beguiling, brash and radiant imaginary European worlds imagined by Max Ophuls or Ernst Lubitsch. The cinematography, by Vilmos Zsigmond, feels too lacquered and polished, suspended in a permanently glow.
 
Despite the lack of emotional authenticity or creative stylization, the movie is not without interest. Watts is generous, tough and completely unsentimental. Her timing is most exquisite, and Allen photographs her beautifully. Brolin is the revelation. His body swollen for the part, he exhibits explosive timing and a dark edge. Pinto is a ravishing screen presence, but her part is underwritten, too conventionally drawn as the kind of exotic “other,” but she is denied any deeper emotional or intellectual complications.
 
The plot involving Hopkins feels unclean and registers a discomfiting bitterness. Allen plunders some of his previous scripts, invoking an unfeeling and mercenary misogyny after Alfie takes up with the beautiful though not quite there Charmaine (Lucy Punch). Her past as an “actress,” or “showgirl,” poaches from similar stories in “Husbands and Wives” and “Mighty Aphrodite.”
 
Likewise, Hopkins is open to possibility, but he’s miscast. Unlike Javier Bardem in “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” Banderas struggles mightily getting at the particularly vernacular of Allen’s English-language writing. From the moment he’s introduced he feels awkward and poorly utilized, negating any realistic plausibility of Watts’ Sally falling for him. (Allen is not shy about taking some unnecessarily cheap shots at Jones’ character’s spiritual or New Age tendencies.)
 
Allen compensates with some very clever plot machinations in the movie’s second half. That mitigates some of the weaker or insufficient characterizations. Too often the movie feels like an in-between work, stripped of the polish and fluency of “Vicky Christina Barcelona” or the volcanic seediness and desperation of “Cassandra’s Dream.”
 
Too many of the characters are either ciphers, like Watts’ Sally in her shocking final scene, or frauds, like Greg or Roy, and they lack of the qualities or compulsive interest to remain either convincingly or worth watching. We’ve seen characters like these before. In the end, they’re not worth the time.