A Woody Allen yawner with a stellar cast

Gemma Jones (left) and Naomi Watts are among the estimable stars who manage to provide a reason to watch the bleak "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," the 44th film from Woody Allen.
Gemma Jones (left) and Naomi Watts are among the estimable stars who manage to provide a reason to watch the bleak "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," the 44th film from Woody Allen.
Posted: October 08, 2010

Among the bleaker and more laughless of Woody Allen endeavors, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger begins with a narrator paraphrasing Macbeth: "Shakespeare said life is full of sound and fury, and in the end signified nothing."

And in the end, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger signifies pretty much nothing, too.

Revisiting ideas and issues that Allen has kept in heavy rotation for decades - infidelity, death, art, the allure of youth - his 44th (44th!) film has been shot (pristinely, by Vilmos Zsigmond) in various cinegenic corners of London town. But unlike Match Point, the first of his films to be set in the U.K. - and a heady reworking of dark themes borrowed from Dostoevsky - his latest has an empty, soulless feel.

Which is not to say that Allen's stellar cast doesn't try to inject passion and pathos into the proceedings. Anthony Hopkins and Gemma Jones, Josh Brolin and Naomi Watts, Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto, and the intensely interesting Lucy Punch almost bring Allen's script to life. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is watchable because of their work - it's only after the fact, and after the narrator returns to reprise the Shakespeare line at film's end, that we realize how flat and dispiriting the whole affair has been.

And speaking of affairs, it's Hopkins' Alfie Shepridge, a well-to-do retiree, who sets things in motion when he decides to jettison his wife of many, many years (Jones' Helena), for a strumpety call girl (Punch). Alfie has been seeing Charmaine for months, and has been doing all the desperately predictable things men do when they feel the years bearing down - gym membership, new wardrobe, a new sports car.

And so he announces he is leaving Helena, who, understandably, is thrown into a state of despair and shock.

Likewise, Alfie and Helena's daughter, Sally (Watts), is unhorsed by the news. She's having her own marital troubles: Her husband, Roy (Brolin), is a writer who, having delivered a promising first novel, has since been struggling with his prose. He sits at home, trying to write, while Sally earns an inadequate income as assistant to a dashing and sensitive art gallery owner (Banderas). It's Helena who has helped with the living expenses, and it's Helena who is beginning to drive Roy mad.

When Alfie leaves her, Helena finds counsel and comfort in the prognostications of a psychic named Cristal (Pauline Collins). The clairvoyant has things to say about Helena's son-in-law, too, which Roy is none too happy to hear. And anyway, his attention has turned elsewhere: to an apartment window across the way, where a beautiful young woman (Pinto) plays the guitar.

Couples in unhappy throes, chance occurrences and thwarted opportunity, flirtation, disappointment, ironic comeuppance - the crisscrossing paths of Allen's bloodless tale take their course.

Sound. Fury. Shrug.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/

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