MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Review: You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

Woody Allen‘s latest effort, You Will Find a Tall Dark Stranger, finds the director returning to Europe — the fertile ground which, in recent years, has served as the setting for the excellent Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona and the fair-to-middling Cassandra’s Dream and Scoop. This time around he’s back in London with a story about the futile, perpetual human desire to chase after that ever elusive greener grass.

It’s a premise that could have been very funny, but Allen’s effort here feels half-hearted, at best, as if he’s shrugging and saying, “Eh, so the story, it’s not so great, but I cast some good actors in the roles and they do a pretty decent job of it. What, you expect me to knock it out of the park every time?”

And if it’s true that this isn’t Woody Allen at his best, it’s also true that even mediocre Woody Allen is still a cut above most of what you’re likely to find at the multiplex. So while this may be more a platter of bangers and mash than haute arthouse cuisine, hey, it could be worse. At least it’s not McDonalds.

So here’s what we have here: A voiceover (Zak Orf) kicks things off by introducing us to Helena (Gemma Jones), a housefrau of a certain age who’s seeking the advice of a charlatan fortune teller (Pauline Collins) in the wake of being abandoned rather abruptly by her husband Alfie (Anthony Hopkins).

Alfie, in the midst of a rather typical male midlife crisis, has suddenly realized he’s getting older, and decided to jettison his old wife and his old life in a desperate attempt to turn old age back into youth through a regimen of workouts, tanning, and a younger wardrobe. Unfortunately for Alfie, the most dedicated regimen cannot turn back the tide of time, and so he succeeds only — as most men in similar situations do, though they realize it only in retrospect — in making himself look thoroughly ridiculous and decidedly undignified.

So he does what any other reasonable man of a certain age in a certain situation would do: acquire a sexy-trashy call-girl girlfriend, Charmaine (Lucy Punch) and woo/buy her love and the promise of fathering a son with her, with as many furs and jewels and tony apartments as your budget can manage. But will even that make Alfie happy in the end? Helena, meanwhile, taking her psychic’s advice, is seeking out a new love of her own, in the form of Jonathan (Roger Ashton-Griffiths), a new-agey bookstore owner who keeps trying to communicate with his dear, departed wife.

Alfie and Helena’s daughter Sally (Naomi Watts), meanwhile, is reaching that age when she’s feeling both the tug of desire for motherhood and the elusiveness of her dream career as an art gallery owner lurking just … out … of reach. Sally is in a flailing marriage to Roy (Josh Brolin), who, after publishing a promising first novel, has been paralyzed by fear of the specter of sophomore failure ever since.

Sally takes a job as the assistant to the ever-sexy Antonio Banderas, owner of a prestigious gallery, to whom she feels an almost immediate physical attraction. If you were married to a grumpy, sloppy, once-promising writer whose unwillingness to take a day job meant you were financially dependent on your mother and unable to pursue the greener grass of motherhood, mightn’t you be tempted by a charming Banderas, slick in expensive suits, and sharing your passion for art? Sure you would. Or at least, you’d ponder it. Roy, for his part, is busy fantasizing about the beautiful woman in red who lives in a flat across the way.

In spite of a a stellar cast and some stories that are, individually, interesting enough, none of it ever congeals into a truly satisfying whole. The film overall has the feel of a bit of a rush job, of Allen just tossing some ideas at his actors, getting it all done as quickly as possible,and moving on. It lacks the magic of Vicky Cristina, the sharp wit of Match Point, and mostly just feels like we’re seeing a warmed-over rehash of something Allen has done — better — many times before.

But hey, it’s Woody Allen, right? When he’s on he’s really really on, and when he’s not, well, it’s not generally terrible, it just fails to meet our expectations of what we hope every Woody Allen movie will be. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger falls firmly into the category of the “lesser Woody Allen” films — worth watching if you’re a buff who doesn’t miss a single Woody Allen film in theaters. Otherwise, it’s maybe worth adding to your Netflix queue.

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“Dude, I don’t like the way you talk, bro. How can you tell me that it’s going to be hard? Do you see a lot of people like you writing stories? Give me a break, bro. That’s your strength, that you’re not like us. Go out there and tell your stories. Don’t go out there and try to be like Quentin or me or anybody else. We need you. Tell me what makes you angry, why you’re arrogant, or fearful, whatever it is. Don’t hide anything. Be honest. What is that thing that bothers you and makes you distinct? Everyone’s looking for you. A Mexican point-of-view to tell a story right now? I’m telling you, everybody wants that right now. I desperately need you to tell your story in your way. You are essential.”
~ M. Night Shyamalan