Friday, October 15, 2010

Review: "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger"

I'm enough of a Woody Allen fan to say there's no such thing as a bad Woody Allen movie. The problem with "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" is not that it isn't good, but that it feels like we've already seen this movie too many times before.

The narcissistic writer, the ambitious career woman trapped in dead-end marriage, the workplace flirtation that turns into (maybe) something more -- we've encountered these characters many times before in various iterations over Allen's 40-plus years of filmmaking. The only thing that changes is which actors play them.

Allen is a famously prolific writer/director, cranking out about a movie a year. There's bound to be repetition of themes and plots across such a huge body of work, but lately it seems he sticks to a formula with interchangeable parts.

Even the plain, spare black-and-white title sequences and old-timey musical score feel less like the affectations of a stubbornly independent artist than the rut of someone who can't find anything fresh to say.

That's also the plight of Roy (Josh Brolin), an American novelist living in London with his wife Sally (Naomi Watts). Roy gave up a career in medicine to write, and after one modestly successful book he's been unable to come up with anything publishers want.

They depend on financial assistance from Sally's mother Helena (Gemma Jones), who recently was abandoned by her husband of 40 years, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins). He didn't seem to have any real reason for divorcing Helena, other than fear of getting old, and she took it rather badly -- first attempting suicide, and then turning to a fourth-rate psychic for spiritual help.

Sally has recently taken a job working for successful art gallery owner Greg (Antonio Banderas), and it's not long before she's longing for the attention of her sexy boss. Roy, meanwhile, has become enamored with the young Indian girl (Freida Pinto) who moved into the apartment across the way, allowing him to play peeping tom.

Helena takes to popping in at Roy and Sally's any hour of the day, chattering away about her latest revelation from the psychic. She believes she's destined to meet a new love, and that Alfie won't be nearly as happy with his new wife as he was with her.

That psychic may just be stringing Helena along, but proves prescient about Alfie's new relationship. Charmaine (Lucy Punch) is half his age and a prostitute -- that's actually how Alfie meets her. But the old dodderer convinces himself she's got a the proverbial heart of gold, instead of just being a digger of it.

When Allen is really clicking -- say, with "Hannah and Her Sisters" or "Annie Hall" -- these self-deluded creatures seem, for all the ridiculousness of their relationships, at least believable. But here, the characters are mere comedy constructs, built to be laughed at.

Is Alfie such an aging lothario that he'd hand over his life to an obvious tart? Could Roy be any more obvious and piggish in his overtures to his lovely neighbor? Would level-headed Sally really throw herself at a man who makes no pretense of returning her affection?

Only Jones, as the increasingly discombobulated Helena, has any real weight or plausibility to her character. She's wallowing in self-pity and half a loon to boot, but we at least deem her a real person we could pass on the street.

"You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" is cookie-cutter Woody Allen. His fans will savor the familiar taste, while the rest of us wish he'd seek out new recipes.

2 stars out of four

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