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Perhaps London in the 21st century really is as absurd and fleeting as New York was in the 1970s. At least that’s one of the messages reiterated in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, the latest in a group of films that may one day be boxed up and sold as “Woody Allen’s European Vacation.”
Since decamping to England—with a brief jaunt to Spain for 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona—Allen has seemingly tried to recapture the madcap antics and sexual nuttiness of his earliest successes, but with greatly mixed results. His first in London, Match Point, was darkly hilarious and made with masterful artistry. But since 2005, Allen has given us a series of schlub-out-of-water misfires, and this latest gambit is no different.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger at least offers more than one schlub to variably laugh at and take pity upon. Josh Brolin takes over as the lone American living on the outskirts of the Kensington set. As Roy, a promising doctor turned struggling author, Brolin is quite serviceable as the up-and-comer who ditches his background for something at which he is woefully bad.
In fact, as in most of Allen’s work, none of the performances are the film’s undoing. As Roy’s wife Sally, Naomi Watts offers a great deal more range than she normally gives in her scream-queen roles. As the more frustrated half of a crumbling marriage, Watts is perhaps the only one here who actually deserves any of our sympathies. Failing to make it work with her mostly-failed writer of a husband, Sally takes a job in an art gallery and falls for her boss, a surprisingly wry Antonio Banderas, who previously worked out his funny bone in the Spy Kids and Shrek series, but turns out to be quite capable at grown-up humor too.
Sally’s parents come in the form of Anthony Hopkins and Gemma Jones. Jones, who is the closest thing the film gets to a protagonist, gets the picture’s funniest moments. Hopkins’ Alfie is some kind of rich guy, but fearing his age he ditches his wife Helena (Jones) and eventually takes up with Charmaine (Lucy Punch), a much younger woman he reforms from a prostitute into a gold-digger. As the aggrieved party in this failed marriage, however, Helena pursues the Allen-esque remedy of mysticism and the occult. The psychic she consults is a fraud from the start but manages to make a few important predictions.
The film becomes a weave of Brolin, Watts, Hopkins and Jones throwing their partners away in pursuit of a seemingly unobtainable alternative. Alfie can’t please his new young trophy wife, Sally lusts after her boss and Helena obeys every one of her psychic’s ludicrous prognostications. Only Brolin’s Roy is modestly successful in the romance department, winning the heart of his pretty young thing of a neighbor in the form of Freida Pinto. As the woman who becomes Roy’s muse, Pinto is the most unpracticed of the cast, but she’s as flawlessly gorgeous as she was in Slumdog Millionaire, though that’s about all she needs to provide for this role. That someone as beautiful as Pinto would break her engagement to a handsome young executive for an unsuccessful, middle-aged writer? I guess that writer would have to be played by Josh Brolin.
Despite a raft of strong performances, there’s not really anything happening that Allen hasn’t done before and done better. It’s another tale of broken engagements and maudlin career changes set in the world of the haves and almost-haves. We don’t get a “Woody Allen character” this time around—the neurosis is equally distributed at the expense of what little plot this film has. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger has a decent stock of one-liners and comeuppances. When she finds herself competing for a new man’s affection with his deceased wife, Jones’ character somberly declares that dead women “are often the stiffest competition.”
The film is pretty stiff as well. Sure, it’s well crafted and capably performed, but that Allen is as industrious at 75 as he was at 35 seems to be more important than the quality of the work. Allen’s continuing tour of Western Europe—broken only by last year’s return to New York for the Larry David kvetch-fest Whatever Works—is less a collection of movies as it is one of mostly boring postcards from foreign cities bathed in golden hues. If only Allen would come home more often and rediscover a tall dark city.