The older Woody Allen gets, the more the nebbish-jester mask dissolves to reveal the pinched sneerer underneath. Can a longtime comedy writer really be this unwarmed by life? In You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, the writer-director's London-set roundelay of neurotics, muses, and frauds, the mysterious stranger of the cumbersome title turns out to be not Antonio Banderas (who joins Freida Pinto in playing insultingly "exotic" objects of desire for the rest of the cast), but, as one character points out, the Grim Reaper himself. The fact that such moldy fatalism feels truer to Allen's worldview than, say, the faux-sensualism of Vicky Cristina Barcelona doesn't exactly ameliorate the sourness of this ensemble dramedy, which plays less as a critique of the characters' willful delusions than as a jaundiced hymn to their necessity.
Serenaded by "When You Wish Upon a Star" and forever looking at the greener grass on the other side, everybody on screen wants to be told sweet little lies. There's art-gallery assistant Sally (Naomi Watts), who waits in vain for security and children from her husband, Roy (Josh Brolin), while carrying a torch for her boss, Greg (Banderas). For his own part, Roy (a struggling novelist and a "member of the Formerly Promising Club") only has eyes for Dia (Pinto), the fetching young woman prone to playing the guitar in a scarlet slip from across his window. And then there's Sally's mother, Helena (Gemma Jones), who's taken up visits to a fraudulent fortune teller and endless glasses of sherry after her husband, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), dumps her for an ill-advised affair with Charmaine (Lucy Punch), an aggressively dim, gold-digging call girl. (Cue close-up of Hopkins grimacing while waiting for the Viagra to take effect.)
No points for guessing that this ronde will have none of Max Ophüls's tender rue for wandering lovers, and all of the supercilious indolence of the Allen of late. Still, one is unprepared for the chilliness with which You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger observes Sally's yearning shading into anxiety, or for the ugliness infusing the Alfie-Charmaine scenes, which are like Mighty Aphrodite with the humor drained and the cruelty upped. Roy's moral quandary and comeuppance have a tang of Crimes and Misdemeanors, but the character Allen seems most invested in is Jones's dithering matron, who embraces her self-deception and is rewarded with a grim "happy ending." "Illusions work better than medicine," pontificates the narrator, before suggesting that it doesn't matter since it's all sound and fury anyway. But, as one of Clerks's bards puts it, surely one can hate people and still love parties. I never thought I'd side with Kevin Smith over Woody Allen quoting Shakespeare, yet here we are.