There was once a time when a Woody Allen film was deservedly a cultural event—a time, that, sadly, has probably long passed, as the writer-director seems to view filmmaking these days as more of a hobby to distract him from his own mortality (he’s more or less admitted as much in interviews). For the last 10 years or so, Allen has essentially made the same film following a mold as tried and true, in its way, as any big summer tent pole. We know that the film in question will revolve around some sort of love triangle, or quadrangle, which is usually adulterous, and that the adultery will most likely be a response to a character or characters’ despair over life’s finality and ultimate probable cosmic futility. We know that the film’s setting will have, despite some geographic experimentation on the filmmaker’s part in recent years, little-to-no bearing on the story. We know, most likely, that there will be a lady prostitute who’s a cultural ignoramus, so as to afford Allen the repeated opportunity to flaunt his male protagonist’s (usually an Allen surrogate, if no longer Allen himself) cultural superiority while mourning the eroding values and education of the present generation. (We can also count on the modern Allen film to usually evade the hypocrisy of said Allen surrogate, who bangs the hooker while seeking his artistic validation elsewhere.)
We know that the dialogue will occasionally be clever, but more often than not functional and unconvincing. We know the familiar font of the credits that will open the Woody Allen film, just as we know the instrumental jazz and ragtime that will serve as the soundtrack regardless of its necessity to the story being told. We know that the film will either be an existential murder thriller in the mold of An American Tragedy or a lighter-on-the-outside comedy. And, finally, we know that the film will feature a wonderful cast of actors—usually a medley of hip flash-in-the-pan talents and old pros—who rarely seem to fit in the same universe because everyone, still even understandably, wants to work with this once-great filmmaker.
The point is that we don’t really see Woody Allen movies in the context of other contemporary films anymore—a development that the obstinately, determinedly out-of-date filmmaker probably embraces. The best way to look at a new Woody Allen film is in relation to the last few that have recently been released, and, in this light, the filmmaker’s newest, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, is about as good as any since the underrated Cassandra’s Dream, which was bracingly honest about its cynicism and cruelty. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger follows the latter-day Allen formula with very few deviations (this one involves two love triangles in London), but it’s generally well-performed by a cast that meshes surprisingly well together.
Anthony Hopkins underplays for once as this film’s aging affluent male, who’s drawn to a younger plaything, while Lucy Punch, as said plaything, is treated by the filmmaker with something that, for him, nearly counts as compassion. (I only counted maybe two jokes centered around Punch’s stupidity, and Allen acknowledges that the men are equally accomplished masters of self-deception this time.) Naomi Watts and Freida Pinto are gorgeous in mostly forgettable roles, but they’re each given one scene of legitimately poignant romantic confusion. Antonio Banderas is dapper and rather touching in a brief part, inspiring hopes that interesting directors would employ him more often, while Josh Brolin survives miscasting to be somewhat amusing anyway. Gemma Jones walks off with the film though, as she imbues You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger with an occasional sincerity and intensity that’s increasingly rare in Allen’s work. As the wife of 40 years whom Hopkins discards, Jones’s role initially plays as a setup for another of the director’s judgments of people who subscribe to a form of religious dogma or some other mystical force higher than themselves (in this case a fortune teller—yes, a fortune teller). But Jones’s terror and desperation are too vivid, and sad, to be written off as a shallow punch line, and Allen, to his credit, recognizes this. (Though there’s a contrived late scene that’s clearly been inserted so as to allow Watts the opportunity to call Jones out on her foolish superstitions.)
But, really, Allen’s movies these days are mostly pointless because he isn’t wrestling with himself anymore. Allen’s great films were funny, lacerating portraits of relationships that also convincingly and movingly grappled with the filmmaker’s own insecurities, while his good ones—such as Manhattan Murder Mystery—were amusing baubles that played to his light side while gracefully hinting at the darker undercurrents that preoccupied his darker films. Allen has become a scold these days, smugly determined that he’s got everything figured out now and that anyone who doesn’t fall in line with his thinking is a deluded fool. Besides the revolving theme of godlessness, Allen’s recent films don’t seem to really even be that personal, as they’re mostly visions of pretty eager-to-please stars talking of courtship and disappointment while standing or sitting in front of a beautiful locale. The Allen of yesteryear would’ve most likely mocked at least a few of the new Allen films, characterizing them as bitter sex fantasies that lack even the good manners to provide the actual sex.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is visually clean, direct, and gorgeous, and the DVD transfer is appropriately modest yet pristine. Allen's films don't exactly warrant show-off through-the-roof sound demos, but the mix here is as precise yet unassuming as it should be. A fine presentation of a modestly pleasurable film.
You kidding? This is a DVD of a Woody Allen film. Just the trailer and an advertisement for the soundtrack.
A fine presentation of a modestly pleasurable, if maddeningly familiar, Woody Allen film.