Human Hijinks, In Pursuit Of That 'Tall Dark Stranger'

Gemma Jones and Naomi Watts

hide captionMarital Madness: Gemma Jones and Naomi Watts star as a mother-daughter duo struggling through collapsing marriages, persuasive fortune telling, and lost ambitions.

Keith Hamshere/Sony Pictures Classics

You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger

  • Director: Woody Allen
  • Genre: Romance
  • Running Time: 98 minutes

Rated R for some language

With: Antonio Banderas, Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins, Freida Pinto, Naomi Watts

Woody Allen seems awfully anxious to reassure audiences at the outset of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. The movie's start is comfortably homey, from that title (promising fantasy of a familiar sort) to the fairytale-ish strains of "When You Wish Upon a Star" backing the credits to an opening quote patrons will be able to recite right along with the narrator — the one about life being a tale "told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Not sure who the idiot is in this instance, but happily, it isn't Allen. The writer-director is in fine if unflashy form, putting a splendid cast through relationship hell in what turns out to be an oddly un-jokey comedy about marital meltdowns. Situations simmer with possibilities, even as characters tend not to crack wise so much as crack up.

They're mostly folks who've opted to stop gazing wistfully at greener pastures and instead leap fences to gambol in them. Anthony Hopkins plays septuagenarian Alfie, blithely abandoning Helena (Gemma Jones), his dithery wife of 40 years, to face down eternity by belatedly pursuing his lost youth. His quest leads him to a wide-eyed, empty-headed call girl named Charmaine (Lucy Punch) who takes just a couple of months to exhaust both him and his bank account. Helena, meanwhile, seeks comfort in sherry, scotch and a relentlessly affirmative fortune teller (Pauline Collins), in roughly that order.

Their daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) would love to be supportive, but she's having marital problems of her own as she waits for her husband Roy (Josh Brolin), a once-promising novelist, to stop wallowing in self-pity and finish his latest book. Frustrated by Roy's distance — he's pining over a neighbor (Freida Pinto) who leaves her blinds open more than an attractive young woman really should — Sally has developed a crush on her unhappily married boss (Antonio Banderas). Now if only she could summon the courage to find out whether the feeling is mutual.

Freida Pinto and Josh Brolin i i

hide captionJosh Brolin's Roy, a drifting writer, seeks inspiration in pretty Dia (Freida Pinto) from next door.

Keith Hamshere/Sony Pictures Classics
Freida Pinto and Josh Brolin

Josh Brolin's Roy, a drifting writer, seeks inspiration in pretty Dia (Freida Pinto) from next door.

Keith Hamshere/Sony Pictures Classics

There's more — randy personal trainers, car crashes, séances — but you get the idea: Lots of sound and fury, not much of actual significance. Still, that doesn't mean the relational fireworks can't be impressive, with Allen providing pop and fizz even when his lines don't take the form of jests. Sometimes the director simply sits back, watching as, say, Banderas slurs seductively through a drunken haze, or Jones' passive-aggressive scatterbrain gathers her wits for a confrontation with her ex.

Other times he sends his camera hurtling into the fray, as in a couple of elegantly choreographed verbal brawls in Sally's apartment that are every bit as simply shot as they are emotionally complex — the camera tracking Sally, Roy and Helena in long, unbroken takes, always where it needs to be to capture nuances of familial cataclysm.

Fortune-tellers and séances aside, does this sound not terribly funny? Well, Tall Dark Stranger is hardly a laff riot, but then that's been true of Allen's movies for a while. It is, however, briskly cynical about human nature, graciously forgiving about human foibles, and situationally amusing about the spectacles otherwise sane people make of themselves when they trust their fates to the stars.



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