Woody Allen specializes in crafting neurotic, self-obsessed characters that can’t get far enough out of their own way to find happiness. These individuals are often played by Allen himself alongside a much-younger leading lady. Another option has a different actor playing the Woody type, most notably Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity and John Cusack in Bullets over Broadway. While these roles are often very entertaining, the characters don’t usually end up happy, especially in Allen’s dramatic films.
In his latest picture You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Allen creates a score of neurotic individuals who all could fit the model. There isn’t a singular individual who embodies the writer/director’s on-screen persona, but virtually everyone has obstacles to bypass in order to avoid disaster. This is not the type of movie where the leads will attain a newfound level of contentment and respect. Instead, even the best-laid plans are likely to end up in the trash bin.
Helena Shebritch (Gemma Jones) is one of those people who practices brutal honesty, regardless of the consequences on her family. After her frustrated husband Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) leaves her, Helena takes solace in the words of a charlatan seer over everyone else. Her daughter Sally Channing (Naomi Watts) is struggling financially and emotionally to keep her marriage with writer Roy (Josh Brolin) afloat. Once a rising author, he toils on his latest opus but keeps getting distracted by the gorgeous Dia (Freida Pinto) in the building across the way.
Nearly all the primary characters are searching for the “tall dark stranger” that’s just out of reach and ignore what they currently have. Sally has a good job in the art world but pines for the affections of her charming boss (Antonio Banderas). She’s also trying to start her own company but can’t even afford the rent in her London flat without help. Another prime example of this trend is Hopkins’ Alfie, who refuses to accept getting old. Exercising with crazed vigor and living in a fancy bachelor pad, he seeks the vitality he once had. An opportunity appears in the prostitute Charmaine (Lucy Punch), but his blind attempts to buy her love are almost certainly headed for disaster. Still, a glimmer of hope for at least two of the characters sparkles in the final moments of the film. A little self-delusion helps with that.
Shooting once again in London, Allen presents the futile actions of these characters with pity, not hatred. It’s clear that he’s very familiar with the Roy character type who is so focused on being a writer that he can’t see the unfortunate truth. Even when Roy finds an unethical outlet that appears destined to succeed, fate plays him a cruel hand once again. These characters are mostly deserving of their fate, but it doesn’t make watching them fall a rewarding experience.
The strongest aspect of this film is the actors, who do their best to deliver believable performances even when the writing falls short. Brolin and Hopkins both make their characters’ moves understandable even if we disagree with the motives. Watts is sharp as always, and even the sometimes static Banderas finds the right note. Jones and Punch give their showy roles their best shots, but their eccentricities become tired as the story moves along.
The extras are virtually nonexistent and don’t really warrant a separate entry marked “Special Features” in the main menu. It includes the theatrical trailer and a brief text description of the soundtrack. That’s it. Allen doesn’t provide commentaries, so that exclusion isn’t a surprise. However, an interview with the actors doesn’t seem like too much to ask.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger was generally panned by critics as another middling Allen film, but there’s a bit more depth than what appears at first glance. The sad, wanting individuals aren’t willing to work together to find a better place. Instead, they struggle alone, searching aimlessly for that saving grace that makes it all worthwhile. The experience can be frustrating for the audience, but Allen sticks to his flawed characters’ personalities right to the end.