You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger follows two couples – one married, one recently divorced. Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) ended his long marriage to Helena (Gemma Jones) in a fit of anxiety about his own mortality (a/k/a meeting the Tall Dark Stranger). Alfie takes up with an “actress” (a/k/a a prostitute) named Charmaine (Lucy Punch). Helena tipples too much and spends a lot of time with a psychic named Cristal (Pauline Collins), who offers her sherry and prognostic succor.
Alfie and Helena’s daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) is married to Roy (Josh Brolin), a trained doctor who gave up medicine to write novels. Now he’s a once-promising novelist in the agonizing throes of failing to live up to his potential. Sally wants to have a family, but she and Roy (who doesn’t have a paying job) are financially dependent on her mother. Helena, consequently, feels free to drop in at any time and impart advice (mostly secondhand, from her psychic) and passive-aggressive criticism.
Sally works for an art gallery, and has a crush on her charming boss Greg (Antonio Banderas), who is also in an unhappy marriage. Roy, meanwhile, begins a flirtation with Dia (Frieda Pinto), the young, beautiful musicologist who lives across the courtyard and apparently has forgotten how to operate windowshades.
Allen hasn’t appeared in a movie since Scoop (2006), but often, for whatever reason, at least one actor in his movies ends up practically impersonating him. Maybe it’s the dialogue, which is, as always, distinctly Allen’s (although not, in this case, particularly funny). Banderas and Brolin both, at times, act and talk like Allen in Tall Dark Stranger; but so does Watts, which is even weirder.
Tall Dark Stranger is mostly rather uncomfortable and unpleasant, but not in a good way. Brolin’s Roy is angry and whiny, and his flirtation with Dia (who is engaged) is utterly unbelievable. He confesses that’s he’s been spying on her, which anyone else would find creepy and icky; but she finds it charming enough to take him to meet her parents and contemplate calling off her marriage. Or maybe she has a thing for unkempt, unemployed peeping Toms.
The relationship that does make sense is the one between Alfie and Charmaine: She finds his money absolutely irresistible, and he wants a trophy wife and a son. Punch’s character is pretty simple: a golddigging dumb blonde who likes working out and nightclubbing. Allen’s script doesn’t give her a way to be sympathetic or interesting; but that’s also true of Hopkins’ Alfie, whose motives aren’t sufficient to make him more than pathetic. There’s even a joke about Viagra at his expense, which shows you how low Allen is willing to go for a laugh (about halfway, as it turns out).
The movie is most sympathetic towards Helena, while also mocking her spiritualist faith in soothsayers and reincarnation and other wishful thinking that helps her believe that life is meaningful. The annoying narrator (Zak Orth) of the movie starts out by quoting Macbeth (life is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing...”) and ends with a verbal shrug of sorts, noting that the secret to Helena’s happiness (in case the audience missed it) is her belief in illusions. All the others? Too messed up and too smart (or too dumb) to succeed in matters of the heart. The more desperately they chase happiness, the more it eludes their grasp.
Syd’s pick from Woody Allen’s recent back catalogue: Match Point
That Woody Allen kid – he might have a future in crime pictures. Take Match Point (2005), his wickedly entertaining film about corruption, greed and lust among London’s upper crust and would-be upper-crusters. Match Point was the first of Allen’s films set in London (Tall Dark Stranger is the latest), and it is an invigorating and bracingly nasty film. The characters in Match Point are needy and neurotic – but they’re largely unaware of it, just as they’re unaware of their moral weaknesses.
It just wouldn’t be a Woody Allen movie if there weren’t unhappy people in it, however, and their misery is our happiness. There’s a kind of creeping moral turpitude; characters pass the moral tipping point without even knowing it, and their pursuit of happiness is their downfall: They chase pleasure and happiness so relentlessly that it makes them miserable. That, it must be said, is a misery that they entirely deserve, although whether anyone will get what they truly deserve – whether this is, after all, a moral universe subject to moral laws – is the key mystery in this lighthandedly dark film.