Beware the film that opens with a quotation from Shakespeare. Yes, life is full of sound and fury, in the end signifying nothing. And yes, you’ve seen this movie before.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is another Woody Allen movie set in London. Again, an older man appears to be in crisis. And again, he runs headlong into chaos and regrets when he decides to make a change. In this instance, it’s Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), yearning to reclaim his former self. A brief flashback shows him sweating to keep up with a lithe 21-year-old aerobics instructor. His wife Helena (Gemma Jones) is soon weary of her husband’s self-delusion—evidenced in his whitened teeth and his new “health foods” regimen—and suggests he accept the fact of his aging. “Poor Helena,” reports yet another of Allen’s vaguely chipper and unseen narrators (Zak Orth), “Truth is not beauty.” (And poor us, beset by yet another obvious literary reference.)
When Alfie “walk[s] out on” her, Helena is devastated. As she emerges from a cab to make her hesitant way along a sidewalk to a fortuneteller, Cristal (Pauline Collins), Helena looks for all the world like a woman on the verge—of what is uncertain. It helps, Helena sighs, that Cristal is “far less expensive than all the psychiatrists I’ve been seeing.” It helps a bit more that Cristal provides afternoon doses of Scotch and tells her new client what she “wants to hear,” that is, that Helena has “everything to live for.”
All of this is less than welcome news for Helena’s daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts), working as an art gallery assistant and supporting her own husband, a one-time novelist, literally. A dimly ugly American, Roy (Josh Brolin) keeps writing and sending out manuscripts, all rejected, resenting the “industry,” his wife’s exasperation (“One way or another, I want to move on with our lives,” she says), and, increasingly, is mother-in-law’s unannounced visits to their apartment (she’s paying their rent, so it’s hard to turn her away). “I have a tough time with mumbo jumbo,” he blusters. When Helena reports her newfound belief that she’s lived a previous life, Roy turns to Sally, flabbergasted: Helena “needs medicine,” he insists, “not illusions.”
As the film makes clear, however, everyone’s getting by on illusions, Roy especially. Helena sees his ongoing failure as a function of not facing his own limits. She thinks he should be working as a doctor, seeing as he actually has a medical degree. “He hasn’t got a spiritual bone in his body,” Helena observes. “How can he write books?”
The same might be said of all the players in this roundelay of frustrations, all lacking “spiritual bones” and all looking for their own art forms, their own means of self-expression. Unsurprisingly, in lieu of art, they turn to sex. After “one tumble” with Charmaine (Lucy Punch: can she be typecast already, after Dinner for Schmucks?), a tall blond-seeming hooker, Alfie decides he loves her, so very earnestly. Believing he can save her from her life as an out-of-work “actress,” he proposes, and she agrees, as long as he keeps paying for gaudy clanking jewelry and a frankly hideous collection of fur stoles and coats.
Even as she disparages her father’s choice of this patently tacky “other,” Sally begins to struggle with a burgeoning lust for her boss, Greg (Antonio Banderas). He’s another sort of “other,” with his exotic accent, excellent suits, and shiny new Audi. As tedious as Sally’s object of desire may be, her delicate efforts to repress it and finally, to articulate it, provide Watts with a few moments—close-up, concise—that seem to come out of another emotional dimension, quite unlike the rest of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger‘s galumphy obviousness.
Alas, it’s crushingly predictable that Sally’s desire parallels her husband’s. During his long afternoons alone at the apartment, Roy spots a new neighbor across the street. Dia (Freida Pinto), new to town and unconvincingly unself-conscious, likes to play her guitar while wearing a red slip, her window open. Roy watches her play music, change clothes, and kiss her fiancé: when he finally meets Dia, he reveals his own lack of imagination, gushing that he’s watched her “slipping out of a red dress: the most erotic 15 seconds I’ve ever seen.” Really?
While it’s no secret that Allen’s been making the same movie for the past couple of decades—at least—this one’s lack of ambition is still disappointing. Opening with “When You Wish Upon a Star” playing over the usual white-on-black credits, the film invites you to judge the various players’ bad decisions and relentless short-sightedness. Ass Helena finds solace in her form of art—her belief in her previous life—the movie restates the point made so long ago in Annie Hall. We need the eggs. Again.