You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger

© 2010 Ray Wong

Woody Allen's new personal drama/comedy, You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger proves to us the writer specializes in whiny, unsympathetic people.

The loosely connected story follows a divorced couple, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) and Helena (Gemma Jones), and their daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) and her husband, Roy (Josh Brolin). Alfie is a successful businessman who decides he doesn't want to get old. So he changes his life by going to the gym, eating better, driving a new sports car, and dumping his wife of 40 years. Devastated, Helena seeks advice from a psychic Crystal (Pauline Collins) who can see the future, when in fact Crystal is a fraud -- Sally has arranged the sessions, and she only wants her mother to hear what she wants to hear, to feel better about her divorce.

Meanwhile, Sally is frustrated with her life and marriage with Roy. She wants to have a baby, but Roy, a one-book-wonder novelist, is balking. Roy can't hold a steady job while struggling with writing his fourth novel. Roy is also secretly pining for their new neighbor Dia (Freida Pinto). Sally, on the other hand, has a crush on her boss Greg (Antonio Banderas) at the gallery.

When Alfie announces he's marrying an "actress" half his age, it sends Helena into a tailspin and she desperately wants to find a companion. Her fixation on the supernatural and constant nagging are driving Roy insane and putting a wedge between Sally and him, so he gravitates toward Dia, who is engaged to be married in the summer. Meanwhile, Sally wants a divorce and to open her own gallery, but she needs money…

The good thing about Woody Allen's films is cast roster reads like a "who is who" list in Hollywood. Naomi Watts (The International) is fine as the frustrated wife, who has her own unfulfilled ambitions, of a struggling writer. Her character, though, seems to run around without a true focus -- much like her life, I suppose. Josh Brolin (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) has a better role: significantly flawed but charming, frustrated but flirtatious, conniving but pathetic. Brolin does a great job conveying all those attributes and emotions.

Anthony Hopkins (The Wolfman) is an old pro and he handles the senior Peter Pan with grace and humility. He basically plays a confused little boy in an older man's body, and has done a nice job. As his devastated ex-wife, Gemma Jones (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) is wonderfully neurotic, fragile, and under-appreciated. Her character does get on our nerves after a while, but she's gone through so much we rather root for her to at least find some peace and happiness.

Rounding out the cast are Antonio Banderas (Homeland Security) who plays it straight as Sally's dashing boss; Anna Friel (Land of the Lost) is genuine as Sally's artist friend; and Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) is beautiful and sweet as the object of Roy's affection.

Written and directed by Woody Allen (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), the screenplay is very typically Allenesque: talky, full of innuendos and nuances, and neurotic. His characters are an interesting mix of different personalities, but I can't help but dislike most of them. It's not to say they are not sympathetic with their respective problems, but many of his characters have despicable traits that are hard for me to identify with. These are strongly opinionated characters but without strong convictions. They are basically weak people with big mouths and ideas. I guess that's the theme of the movie: "Sound and Fury that signify nothing." Still, I find myself not totally engaged with these people's lives.

Not to mention, the characterizations are generally contrived and cliched. The man who is going through a late midlife crises and marries a prostitute; the long-suffering housewife in an identity crisis; the bored supportive wife wanting something for herself; the struggling writer who complains about everything except himself. The trouble is, Allen relies on quite a bit of boilerplates for his characters, and the plot also resolves around some typical scenarios (infidelity, mindless quarrels, people falling out of love, etc.) It feels recycled. There's nothing unpredictable. The dialogue, on the other hand, remains Allen's strength. It's witty, smooth, and realistic.

Allen's direction is minimalistic, which I like. And he seamlessly weaves the different threads together. What I don't like is his overt use of voice-over as a narrative shortcut. Someone forgot to tell Allen about "show, don't tell." And the story doesn't seem to have an ending. OK, it does wrap up one plot thread, but leaves the others dangling. That leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Basically, I feel like I've just wasted 98 minutes of my life.

Allen is a smart, talented writer, and he can be a great director (I particularly enjoyed Match Point). But when he indulges in his whimsical little films, the result can be grating. I admit, I'm not always a Woody Allen fan, and this movie hasn't convinced me otherwise. I'm still waiting to meet a substantial, fun and meaningful Woody Allen movie.

Stars: Antonio Banderas, Josh Brolin, Anna Friel, Anthony Hopkins, Gemma Jones, Freida Pinto, Naomi Watts
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 98 minutes


Script – 6
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 7
Music/Sound– 6
Editing – 7
Production – 7

Total – 6.9 out of 10

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