The first few minutes of Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream are not bad. The camera flows two brothers, Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry (Colin Ferrell), as they inspect a sailboat they’re wanting to purchase. While their gestures are awkward and their pretense of “experience” is hardly convincing, their eagerness is almost charming. In part, this is a function of watching famous players as a couple of blokes in over their heads from frame one. As they seek to make a deal on the boat, you can almost see the wheels grinding, their efforts to be cool even though they don’t have an inkling how to do it.
Explaining the decision to their parents (John Benfield and Clare Higgins) at the dinner table, Ian and Terry appear even more lost. Asserting strenuously that they know what they’re doing and why, the brothers reveal exactly the opposite. Ian especially desires to get out from under the family business, running a small London restaurant, while Terry has his own issues, namely drunkenness, boredom with his job as an auto mechanic, dedication to longtime girlfriend Kate (Sally Hawkins), and an increasingly out-of-control gambling habit. On hearing yet again of their Uncle Howard’s wealth and success (a plastic surgeon, he pays for his sister’s family vacations, he knows Hollywood people), Terry and Ian sigh and roll their eyes and insist on their need for independence and escape.
As tends to happen in Woody Allen movies these days, the options for such egress are uniformly dire and dull. The tipping point is achieved when both boys run into big money trouble: Ian finds a new girlfriend, an actress named Angela (Hayley Atwell), whom he believes will only continue to see him if she believes he actually owns the elegant Jaguar in which she first spots him. Unfortunately, he’s borrowed it from Terry’s place of business, and so his crush on Angela is instantly caught up in a spiral of lies from which Ian will never recover. He never comprehends his own yearning, much less her superficial aspirations. Over time, he becomes jealous of her conversations with other men, and even her work with them (indeed, what was so attractive about her to start—her conventional beauty and desirability—is exactly what rankles him. After watching her on stage one evening, he asks, “Does it bother you coming out naked, doing all those kinky sex things?” Angela looks at her lover with receding patience:” I think it’s a very moral play,” she assures him, a point that the film keeps articulating about itself, as if not trusting viewers to be even as smart as its exceedingly slow protagonist.
At around the same time, Terry goes through his own spiral—a series of winning bets turns into a terrible set of losses. Suddenly, both brothers are in need of instant cash. The chance for such an infusion arrives in the form of Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson, almost done in by this impossible, soulless part), who stops by for a meal and to dole out the usual favors. Only this time, he’s asking for one in return: for shadowy reasons, he needs to have someone murdered, a task that he inexplicably believes his bumbling nephews might handle (even odder, he believes their involvement will not eventually be traced back to him, assuming they will be caught). As in Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors, the character destined to play the corpse matters little; in fact, this one barely speaks. Instead, the victim serves as point of departure for the killers’ next steps, whether selfish ambition or pangs of conscience.
But if the morality play is decidedly uninvolving (in part because the pace is so clunky), particular, sometimes anomalous images evince at least a passing interest in composition, however abstract and however bizarre the apparent emotional vacuum (thanks largely to cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond). In some of these cases, Allen’s mostly annoying penchant for brief expository scenes allows a moment or two of visual poetry. Hiding in the shadows at the victim’s home, the brothers take up positions that might, in another movie, seem noirish and evocative. Here the shot is creepy and singular, an instant of unrealized potential. Again, when they follow the victim through his neighborhood, the lawns, sidewalks, and hedges form an allusive geography in the shadows, the assault itself almost unseen, in order to tilt toward the ensuing emotional effects (or lack of same).
As the brothers’ tensions engulf them—their relationship with one another, as well as their lives with their parents and thinly outlined girlfriends—the film becomes progressively less interesting. The worrier is beset with guilt and nightmares, the miserable cad, as ambitious as his uncle and even more callous. Their differences are stark, their inabilities to communicate dismal, and their stories banal.