Arts & Entertainment, Film and TV

We get it: life is meaningless

Anybody who’s seen Annie Hall, Manhattan, or Sleeper knows that when it comes to comedy, Woody Allen is a genius. His scripts, his unique brand of neuroticism, and the depth of the themes he explores make him one of the most important filmmakers of our time.  

But in the last five or so years, Allen has moved his trademark New York style to the streets of London to direct a series of darker films. Although films like Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream were artistic works in their own right, his most recent endeavour, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, has fallen so far from his original genius that it would be insulting to call it part of his oeuvre.  

Centring on two couples, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) and Helena (Gemma Jones), and their daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) and her husband Roy (Josh Brolin), the film explores the classic Allen theme of dissatisfaction in relationships, and in life more generally. Alfie, played by a knobbly—kneed, white-haired Hopkins, wakes up one night to the terrifying realization that he has to spend his remaining years with an aging wife to whom he’s been married for 40 years. So, in the words of the film’s narrator, he “darkens his skin and whitens his teeth,” and pursues the life of a swanky bachelor.  

Meanwhile, Helena’s response to Alfie’s sudden uprooting of their marriage is to seek answers from a fortune teller, who tells her, among many foolish things, that she will meet “a tall dark stranger.” Sally is, of course, skeptical of her mother’s mindless adhesion to whatever “Cristal says,” but, with Roy’s flailing writing career and delusions of leading a romantic bohemian life, she is busy with a failing marriage of her own. Both men end up leaving their respective wives hoping to move on to something better—for Roy, to the beautiful Dia (Freida Pinto), at whom he creepily gazes through his bedroom window, and for Alfie, to the lewd, former call girl Charmaine (Lucy Punch), whom he met on the job.  

In classic Allen fashion, New Orleans jazz music punctuates most of the dialogue, but is insufficient compensation for the otherwise vapid scenes. An Allen-like narrator (sans Brooklyn accent) sporadically fills in the gaps of the storyline, and interjects to deliver banal lines like, “Shakespeare once said, life is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Allen is undoubtedly well-cultured, so it’s surprising that he would not only feel the need to throw in an irrelevant line from Shakespeare, but also make the mistake of conflating Shakespeare with Macbeth, the character who famously stated the line.

To be clear, there’s nothing blaringly terrible about the film. Allen is so skilled at his craft that he could make a decent movie in his sleep, and apart from Pinto—who, though a killer beauty, is a thoroughly unconvincing actress—the acting is quite stellar.  Helena’s lines are often silly and clichéd, but Jones captures her frivolous naiveté like the veteran that she is. Watts is very persuasive as a frustrated daughter, artist and wife, and Hopkins is nothing short of slighted by participating in a film so clearly beneath him. The ever-sexy Antonio Banderas also lends his talents to playing Sally’s boss. Brolin, however, is not entirely credible as a struggling writer. The scenes between him and Pinto were especially stale, as the idea that her insipid character would fall in love with his dishevelled one seems implausible.  

It’s the fact that You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger explores the very same themes that Allen has explored over the past 40 years—but this time so much less intelligently—that makes the film such a disappointment. Life is a meaningless crapshoot no matter which road you take; you can neither predict nor escape from your fate; the more neurotic you are, the more likely you are to spend time philosophizing about it; and finally, putting your faith in nonsense is no more absurd than putting it in science or reason. These are classic Allen lessons. But this time they’re conveyed so tritely and superficially, that you don’t really want to hear them.

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