Monday, 4 April 2011

'You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger' review:

Woody Allen has written, directed and, in many cases, starred in a film every year since the late sixties. On top of that he has written stage plays, short stories and newspaper columns, as well as occasionally touring with his jazz band. As a nineteen year old he wrote jokes for Ed Sullivan and his own stand-up comedy would go on to inspire generations of fellow comics, who voted Allen the third best comedian of all-time in a 2004 poll for Channel Four. These are overused terms, but the man is undoubtedly a genius and a legend.

I preface this review of You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, released in the UK last Friday, with this biography because these are facts I feel compelled to remind myself when contemplating his most recent films. It has become a truism that every Woody Allen film of the last twenty years has been perceived as a "return to form", but with hindsight he never really lost form in the nineties, with that decade yielding works as varied and inspired as 'Everyone Says I Love You', 'Deconstructing Harry', 'Bullets Over Broadway', 'Manhattan Murder Mystery' and 'Sweet and Lowdown'.

The last decade, however, has been far less rewarding with 'Vicky Christina Barcelona' probably the commonly acknowledged high point and - at the risk of sounding like the sort of pseudo-intellectual parodied in his best movies - that film is by no means vintage Allen.

Meanwhile the likes of 'Curse of the Jade Scorpion' and 'Anything Else' have been forgettable, even average. Yet in those cases you suspect that Allen is a victim of both his own success, with genre-defining classics like 'Annie Hall', and his tireless work rate. If those movies weren't Woody Allen films they might just be judged as smart comedies, still well above the average, whilst the fact that he releases at least one film every year means that critics and audiences are never left to anticipate a new Woody Allen film the way they must with Polanski, for instance. However, this logic fails to account for his recent series of movies shot in the UK, of which 'Tall Dark Stranger' is the fourth.

The first of these, 'Match Point', he considers his best work and is among his most commercially successful films. Yet this thriller almost takes a perverse pride in being so very un-Woody Allen. With it he goes for drama rather than comedy, whereas his best films have always combined both, and its interesting central premise is lifted from his superior 'Crimes and Misdemeanors' almost wholesale. 'Scoop' has its moments, but likewise these feel recycled, with Allen's lower-class magician character reminiscent of his agent in the brilliant 'Broadway Danny Rose'. But at least that one is fun. On the other hand 'Cassandra's Dream' is a humourless and trite family crime drama and the worst film he has ever made - totally without redeeming quality.

With these past failures in mind, things didn't look hopeful for 'You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger' - and it's a wonder that he made it at all given his relatively fruitful return to New York with 'Whatever Works'. An ensemble comedy with a typically impressive cast, which includes Anthony Hopkins, Naomi Watts, Freida Pinto, Antonio Banderas and Josh Brolin, 'Tall Dark Stranger' follows half a dozen interconnecting relationships as it explores familiar themes such as mortality and the endless search for meaning in an ultimately meaningless universe.

The story is bookended by a Shakespeare quote which tells us that "life is all sound and fury signifying nothing", but whereas Allen's other films derive an optimistic "whatever makes you happy" philosophy from this state of affairs, 'Tall Dark Stranger' is a bitter and tragic picture of the human condition. The characters are perpetually unfulfilled and unhappy, with the title deriving from the advice an elderly lady (Gemma Jones) seeks from a fortune teller in order to make her remaining time on Earth more palatable.

Of note is the fact that, in his 75th year, Allen also confronts the insecurity brought on from ageing - so long brushed off with witty comments - through Anthony Hopkins' character, who uses fake tan and goes to trendy clubs in order to delude himself into feeling vital. The catalyst for the film's game of relationship musical chairs is his decision to leave his wife (Jones) for a younger woman (a reformed prostitute played by Lucy Punch) and it is this pairing of Hopkins with a younger woman that is the most interesting relationship in the film.

Over the years, even as far back as 'Manhattan' in 1979, it has not escaped notice that Allen frequently pairs old men with much younger women, but the difference in 'Tall Dark Stranger' is that this desire to have a younger woman and forsake his marriage is played as pathetic - partly thanks to Hopkins' tender performance, but it is undoubtedly also down to Allen's writing. In true Allen style, Punch's character is uneducated and lacking in sophistication, with Hopkins struggling to educate her in culture, but here we get a slightly different take on this relationship that has been so much at the centre of what is quintessentially Woody Allen.

Noami Watts and Antonio Banderas are also really enjoyable, especially in the scenes they share together. One moment in a jewellers sees Watts radiate charm and natural comic timing as she reluctantly returns to the shop assistant a pair of diamond earrings she has been trying on, whilst a concluding scene between their two characters is the most quietly effective emotionally, as Banderas underplays everything masterfully. However Brolin's character, a struggling novelist, lacks charm and Freida Pinto is given very little to do as the film's tantalising "woman in red". British duo Punch and Jones turn their characters into caricatures.

'Tall Dark Stranger', with its impressive cast and with its author in reflective mood, could have been really special. However, it is spoiled by an almost complete lack of humour. There are jokes in there but they mostly misfire, or at least his New York Jewish wit doesn't effectively translate when delivered with a British accent.

Worse still the film features a horrendous narration similar to that which (for me at least) spoiled 'Vicky Christina Barcelona'. Through the narration we are told rather than shown what our characters are thinking and feeling, and there is just no excuse for it. The film's musings on life, love and the impermanence of all things also come across as a little obvious and the whole thing feels like a poor facsimile of Woody Allen's earnest 1980s output, but without the strict formal style brought about by his frequent homages to Bergman and Fellini in that period.

'You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger' isn't a complete write-off. The sardonic final scene and Allen's observation that all people are involved in a permanent state of anxiety over their mortality - informing their decisions in work, love and everything else - is compelling. It's just not very funny. But, Allen being Allen, another film isn't far off. Let's hope 'Midnight in Paris' marks a real return to form.

'You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger' is out in the UK now and is rated '12A' by the BBFC.

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