By Steven Boone
[Cassandra's Dream opens today in limited release.]
What does Woody Allen believe in? Across 40 years he has spoken publicly of his atheism and general pessimism while drawing from these sentiments in even his goofiest comedies. He has been in psychoanalysis for about as long as he's been making films, and the dialogue in his screenplays often reads like an analyst's notes. Allen may keep coming up with new premises for his movies, but there are no mysteries about the man that his 40-plus films haven't laid open like franks on a grill (apologies to Ghostface Killah). Cassandra's Dream is more of the same, just bigger and blacker. (No, not in that sense. You crazy?) The almost believable tragedy that unfolds here is on roughly the same scale as his last wristcutter, Match Point, but he gestures more broadly to the Greeks, the Good Book and the Timeless Futility of It All. In case you missed it last time, he wants you to get it here: Life is profoundly cruel and unfair.
Got it. So why should a person looking for something other than a lesson most folks digest sometime after, um, birth sit still for this pounding? Well, with Cassandra's Dream, Allen's text may be coroner-cold, but his camera is having a lot of fun. The prowling, watchful, slightly mocking eye that he perfected long ago in Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Husbands and Wives (one of the great "handheld" movies) is still kicking here. Thankfully, Allen's cast appears to be having just as much fun—or at least meeting the challenges he presents in several virtuoso ensemble scenes with sleeves rolled up.
The plot involves two South London brothers named Terry (Colin Farrell) and Ian (Ewan McGregor) who suddenly need lots of cash but have no idea how to acquire it legally. Terry has massive gambling debts and simply wants to keep his debt collectors from tossing him into the Thames. Ian has a hot girlfriend who he believes he'll lose if he doesn't maintain an illusion of success; he wants in on a California hotel investment scheme that he's told will yield a giant return. (I wonder if this guy also responds to unsolicited emails from Nigerian businessman and penis pill vendors.)
Cassandra's Dream is a winning dog Terry bet on at the races, named after the deceitful princess of Greek mythology. Ian and Terry borrow the name for a boat they bought by scraping their nickels and dimes and dog winnings together. To impress Ian's girlfriend Angela (Hayley Atwell) and Terry's girlfriend Kate (Sally Hawkins), they take the women sailing like stockbrokers made good. The truth is that Terry is a barely-making-it auto mechanic and Ian is only nominally out of the working class because he helps manage his father's small restaurant business while plotting his escape through ventures like the California deal. The boys are pretending.
If you've seen Match Point, you know that calling Cassandra's Dream "more of the same" means that there will be blood. The brothers' pretenses and ambitions lead them to murder, and you almost sense Allen shifting on his feet, anxious to get there. No rush necessary. The juiciest parts of Cassandra's Dream are not the killings but the intervening family fights and tense, awkward moments of "bonding." As the boys' jet-setting, fabulously wealthy Uncle Howard, Tom Wilkinson enters to catalyze the plot and anchor a dizzying confession scene that's virtually its own one-act black comedy. The brothers consult privately with Uncle Howard about their financial troubles while Allen shifts gears and tone so elegantly within this one scene, it would be foolish to think that audience laughter is unintentional. It's a cloudburst (reflected literally in the weather) of hidden agendas, accusations, and rationalizations. This is Allen's true meat and potatoes, his reason to go on. (I thought back to the last scene of Take the Money and Run and the way Allen briefly got his performing groove back by riffing with Elaine May in Small Time Crooks.)
Yes, Farrell and MacGregor struggle to pull off their characters, but not because of any trouble Scottish MacGregor or Irish Farrell have with Cockney accents. The real difficulty is believing them as weak-willed and stupid. These are not shrink-to-fit actors. Their characters call for someone like Christian Bale, who miniaturized himself in the presence of virile villain Russell Crowe in order to make 3:10 to Yuma almost work. It's just hard to fathom MacGregor's zombiedom before the generic pretty-girl personality and telegenic beauty of Atwell's Angela. And he's no more convincing drooling childishly over fancy cars than was Sharon Stone squealing like a schoolgirl over diamonds in Casino. Farrell is a better fit for his drinking-and-lamenting grease monkey character. While it takes a big leap of faith to accept these intelligent, wakeful screen personas falling into such a clumsy murder plot, Allen compensates by keeping us riveted to their moral crisis once they've committed to do evil. MacGregor's descent into cowardice and what looks like pure sociopathy harmonizes with Farrell's conscience eating him alive. More laughter: Farrell's distress is so real and childlike ("I don't wanna kill anybody!") it tickles as it burns.
Allen may know little or nothing about the real London (dunno, never been there myself), or how "kids today" blather in crowded bars, or what two upwardly mobile ordinary joes talk about besides upward mobility...but he knows all about the one thing that gives Cassandra's Dream its juice: Insecurity. He knows what its like to be sitting pretty with guilt and doubts screaming in your ears. It's written in the timorous dolly shots and thoroughly distraught/bemused pans away from scenes of killing, embarrassment, false hope, eloquent bullshit. Even in their missteps, the great directors can't deny us something of their wisdom and skill. Even while steeped in cynicism, Woody Allen can't help but show us his troubled heart.
Steven Boone is a New York-based critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl is Heavy and the publisher of Big Media Vandalism.