The boat is a start. And despite the ominous thrum of a Philip Glass score, things are rosy as Terry and his good-hearted girlfriend (Sally Hawkins) and Ian and his pretty coworker (Ashley Madekwe) - Ian manages his dad's restaurant - take an inaugural sail.
But then Ian meets a seductive actress, Angela (Hayley Atwell), stranded on the side of a country road. And then Terry, a compulsive gambler, gets in debt to the tune of 90,000 pounds. And then Uncle Howard shows up. Sure, he'll help Terry pay off the loan sharks, and, yes, he'll front Ian the money for a hotel and spa project in California, but there's a favor he needs doing. Can you please kill this ex-colleague of mine, Martin Burns (Phil Davis), because if you don't, he's going to ruin me?
Family comes first, right?
Terry and Ian gulp and stare, dumbfounded. They aren't thugs, but they're desperate. Slowly they come around to the idea. They map out the details of this horrible act, how to go about it, when to pull it off. There are snafus, of course, and soul-searching, and globs of guilt. But Allen, who steers his actors through the rather far-fetched proceedings with clipped precision and throwaway references to Greek tragedy and the violent nature of humankind, fails to drum up any genuine emotion.
Like the theater piece that Angela is starring in on a London stage, Cassandra's Dream feels like playacting. Farrell does squinty and nervous, McGregor fills his role with a goofy naivete that seems all wrong for a budding entrepreneur, and even the stalwart Wilkinson can't overcome the preposterousness of Uncle Howard's request.
Sidney Lumet, who recently delivered his own (vastly superior) tale of brothers mired in murder, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, has a handy explanation for the essential difference between drama and melodrama. In a good drama, he says, story comes out of the characters. In a good melodrama, the characters come out of the story.
I guess that means that Cassandra's Dream isn't good melodrama, because the characters never emerge - they're stick figures, speaking stick-figure words in Allen's version of a stick-figure world.
Cassandra's Dream ** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Woody Allen. With Hayley Atwell, Colin Farrell, Ewan McGregor and Tom Wilkinson. Distributed by the Weinstein Co.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, profanity, adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz East and Showcase At the Ritz Center/NJ
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.