Relationships unfurl and intertwine in Woody Allen's You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger (2010)
There's a distinct air of the familiar to You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger. Let me pitch you the way one central relationship plays out: an elderly couple split up. The man is unable to accept his age and dumps his wife for a younger, tartier, blonder model - but it doesn't work out. He crawls back to her with his life in ruins, but she has fallen for somebody else - a nice, kind, compassionate man. Yep, if you're getting déjà vu then it's because you saw Husbands And Wives (1992) with the characters of Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis). Here they are replaced by Anthony Hopkins and Gemma Jones, both brilliant but somewhat struggling with the dialogue. He may be enjoying his European period, but Allen's artistic voice still belongs distinctly to New York...
Ultimately, and rather sadly, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger is a middling work. It has lots of plot strands, most of which I found engaging, but we've seen them all before in Allen's oeuvre, and done better. It has none of the aesthetic beauty, acerbic wit or budding romance of a Manhattan (1979). None of the acidic, brittle insight of the aforementioned Husbands And Wives. But I think it's perhaps unfair to compare, as so many critics are. The fact is that we have those films - Annie Hall (1977) and Hanna And Her Sisters (1986) included - in the bank. Allen is 76 years old and he's been making at least one film a year for the past four decades. He's explored philosophy and contemporary romance to the degree that anything new will feel old hat and we have the masterpieces on reserve, so we shouldn't be expecting another one every twelve months. Just because You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger doesn't have those qualities, it doesn't mean the film doesn't have qualities of its own, and although the Allen of the past is much missed the present one is by no means bad (unless we're talking about Whatever Works, 2009).
The biggest problem is that there's no spark; everything flows really efficiently and I was entertained by the film but even now, a day later, it has just blended in. The direction (lots of tracking shots) and photography is the work of a complacent craftsman - assurance threatens to slip into laziness but it's so well constructed that you're just absorbed by the film... in terms of visuals it's decidedly workmanlike but confidently engaging. The standout beauty is Freida Pinto as Dia; The Woman In Red. Perhaps that's too obvious a metaphor but she still looks beautiful and it's easy to see why Roy (Brolin) falls for her. That's another thing worth celebrating - the relationships are really believable. Even when Allen is on routine form he is able to craft characters we recognize and relate to. Sally (Watts) falling for her boss is easy to understand when he's as charming and exotic as Greg (Banderas); although his affair with oddly Irish Anna Friel (underdeveloped) isn't explored enough. One of the best scenes in the film, however, is where Sally confronts Greg about her own feelings, revealing repressed layers of desperation that are deeply awkward and emotionally resonant.
As always there's a plot strand that takes things perhaps a bit too far... Roy's friend has recently (and secretly) just completed his first novel, but is involved in a car crash. Roy believes him to be dead so he steals the book and passes it off as his own... naturally the friend is not dead, just in a coma. Allen has made the character deeply human and sympathetic (if cliché) so we feel for him - but in a narrative sense we're rolling our eyes. The film has both friction and warmth and they're balanced with some acutely observed laughs; although they don't come as frequently as you'd like. This is the ultimate saving grace of the film. Allen is now a natural storyteller. He has a sense of rhythm and of pace - he flits between characters on cliffhangers with ease and joins scenes through a style of narration that now marks him as an auteur. The film begins with a Shakespeare quote: "life is full of sound and fury and in the end signifies nothing" and from there he attacks mysticism and fortune telling, the primary theme of Oedipus Wrecks (1989), before rampaging through domestic setups that mark the best of his work. I enjoyed You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger a lot but if you asked me to pick it out from a crowd of Allen films a year from now I probably couldn't, and that's the biggest shame of all.