The king is not forgotten

If ever there were an example of an artist with nothing left to say, Woody Allen is its living definition. When you consider how many good films he made in the ’70s and ’80s, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger makes it clear how far he’s truly fallen. It’s not that this latest is so bad. It isn’t. It’s just that it’s so uninteresting and unnecessary.

A London-based roundelay, it focuses on two unhappily married couples (though marriage in general gets a swift kick to the groin). The first is Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), who has fallen for cheap, gold-digging call girl Charmaine (Lucy Punch) while his abandoned and distraught wife, Helena (Gemma Jones), has fallen in with a manipulative psychic (Pauline Collins), who keeps her plied with sherry and an endless stream of self-serving predictions.

Meanwhile, Helena’s daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) is struggling with her own marital woes. An art gallery assistant who’s smitten with her sexy boss (Antonio Banderas) — also unhappily married — she’s become disenchanted with her failed writer husband Roy (Josh Brolin). Of course, it doesn’t help that Roy has been chatting up the alluring young woman (Slumdog Millionaire’s Freida Pinto) from across the way (who plays guitar in a scarlet slip). The expected complications ensue.

Allen moves his cast around like pieces in a chess game and, as usual, he gets terrific performances from each — with Jones miraculously turning an annoying cartoon into a convincing neurotic. The whole affair, despite its theme of death and mortality (the stranger in question), feels breezy and lighthearted but never lands any comic punches.

In fact, Punch brings what little energy the movie generates, but there’s simply no way of getting around that she’s been cast in one of Allen’s thankless hooker roles, a comically condescending creation that makes clear his disdain for both the lower classes and female sexuality. Unlike Mighty Aphrodite, which actually had a goofy-if-patronizing sense of humor, the Alfie-Charmaine subplot is mostly played for predictably wince-inducing cruelty.

Allen can still be amusing and even, for a few brief instances, clever, but so much of Tall Dark Stranger is worthy of shrugs, a series of mostly predictable plot wranglings, and neurotic handwringing. Most of the important plot points are revealed in narration, and whenever the complications seem ready to take flight, Allen cuts away, unwilling to commit to his dramatic conceits. The most interesting thing about the film is that Allen has relegated true happiness solely to his more screwball characters, letting the romantic principals dangle in the wind, unfulfilled. Cynical fatalism is nothing new for Allen, he’s always been a misanthrope at heart (with unhealthy dollops of misogyny on the side), but here there’s a final sense of melancholy, an acknowledgment that the Reaper waits for us all.

And that hint at what You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger might’ve been is what roots Allen at the disappointing endpoint of his career. Instead of using his own mortality as fuel for a comedic examination of death’s inevitability, he’s frittering away time he has left on schmaltzy recycled satire like this. Could the wonderfully funny Love and Death, a film he made when he was 40, really have been his last word on the subject? •

You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger
Dir. Woody Allen; writ. Woody Allen; feat. Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins, Gemma Jones, Freida Pinto, Naomi Watts (R)

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