It’s that time of year again—another of Woody Allen’s annual exercises limps into theaters, full of moneyed infidelity, old jazz standards and rote pessimism. It’s hard to fight the urge to just cut-and-paste from my older reviews of Allen’s late-career output, as that seems to be how he writes his screenplays these days.
After a seriously dire decade that offered career-low dreck like Melinda and Melinda and Hollywood Ending, things seemed to be looking up slightly for the Wood-man on his past couple outings. The slight Vicky Cristina Barcelona at least had a randy charm, and last summer’s Whatever Works benefited from Larry David’s dyspeptic presence. He was hardly helming masterpieces, but at least Allen seemed engaged with his material again.
Not so in the case of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, which feels enervated and wheezy enough to rank in the bottom 15 or so of Woody’s 40 features. A recycled recitation of the filmmaker’s pet themes, it has all the verve of a contractual obligation. This time he doesn’t even seem to be trying.
Anthony Hopkins (himself no stranger to half-assing his way through movies) stars as a rich London lout who, spooked by contemplations of mortality, starts going to tanning salons. He quickly takes up with a gold-digging prostitute half his age (Dinner for Schmucks’ Lucy Punch, delivering the same cartoon performance that she gave in that cringe-fest), leaving his wife, Helena, to seek the solace of a fortune teller.
Overplayed by legendary stage actress Gemma Jones, Helena’s late-life supernatural fixations are just another broad device for Allen to again vent his spleen about religion and the futility of seeking systems of order in a godless universe. We’ve heard this rap before, but at least he used to throw in some jokes.
Even more familiar is the plight of Jones’ son-in-law, Roy, a once-successful writer suffering from second-novel syndrome, even though he’s on his fourth. Hapless Roy (Josh Brolin) drives limos and drinks, borrowing money from his in-laws while ignoring his long-suffering wife, Sally (Naomi Watts). Watts locates a surprising degree of sympathy in Sally, choking back feelings for her smooth-talking art-gallery boss (Antonio Banderas) and struggling valiantly with long passages of blunt, over-written dialogue. Or maybe she just seems likeable because Roy is such an ass.
It’s rare to find a bad Josh Brolin performance, but he’s perfectly dreadful here, miscast as a tweedy, neurotic intellectual with the obligatory Woody-ish stammers and exaggerated hand gestures. Stuck with a terribly unfortunate haircut and distracting wardrobe that’s countless shades of beige, Brolin off-puttingly flounders his way across the screen, preposterously charming his sexy next-door neighbor (Slumdog Millionaire’s Freida Pinto) by admitting that he stares at her through the window while she’s getting undressed. A charmer, this one.
Naturally she calls off her wedding and introduces him to her parents, because this is the kind of Woody Allen film where people casually bounce in and out of affairs that don’t make any sense on a basic screenplay level. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger suffers mightily when viewed next to Allen’s lacerating 1992 masterpiece Husbands and Wives, which charted similar adulterous liaisons and came to many of the same conclusions. But that picture had grit, vigor and often volcanic emotions. Here everybody just seems bored and vaguely disappointed. Hopkins looks comatose half the time.
Allen himself seems to give up and go home about two-thirds of the way through his story. Relying on an omniscient narrator (Zak Orth) to drop literary references and handle all the awkward exposition that Woody typically shoves into his characters’ mouths, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger abruptly cuts off, leaving several central story conflicts unresolved and wrapping itself up with another quick riff about cosmic ironies and the meaninglessness of existence.
We’ve just been here so many times before, and will presumably be back again next year, when Allen’s already completed Midnight in Paris hits theaters.
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Gemma Jones
Running time: 98 minutes