Thursday, March 24, 2011

Film Review: You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010)

Let history show that this was officially the point at which Woody Allen just stopped trying.
Woody Allen has directed at least one film a year since 1982, and his decision to keep up that work rate well into his 70s is, on one level, incredibly admirable. However, whenever he produces a film as lazy, ill-conceived and tired as You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, it's hard not to think that, much like Alfie Shebritch (Anthony Hopkins), he might be better off accepting that he isn't as young as he used to be and that adopting a more sedate pace, or at least taking an extra few months to come up with an ending to his script, might be a better idea.

We are introduced to Alfie just after he has been overwhelmed by an existential crisis. Having realised that he is an old man and that he will probably die soon, he deludes himself into believing that if he works out, eats right and generally acts younger, then he will be able to stave off death, that tall dark stranger that we all must meet, indefinitely. When his wife Helena (Gemma Jones) refuses to enable him in his fantasies, Alfie promptly divorces her and marries Charmaine (Lucy Punch), a prostitute who he becomes infatuated with through loneliness rather than any shared interests. He likes plays and opera, she likes watching daytime television and dancing to banging tunes whilst dancing with men who are at least within a decade of being the same age as her. If they do have anything in common, it's that he has money and she loves it when he spends it on her.

This turn of events causes Helena to spiral downwards. She tries to kill herself, starts visiting a psychic - who provides her with the prophesy that gives the film its title - and spends most of her time haranguing her daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) and her husband Roy (Josh Brolin). This only serves to exacerbate their own problems as both find their thoughts wandering outside the bounds of matrimony as Roy develops a crush on the beautiful woman in an opposite apartment (Freida Pinto) and Sally falls for her new boss (Antonio Banderas).

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is one of those Woody Allen films that is hard to pin down. Not because it is so complex or nuanced that it defies categorisation, but because it is hard to tell if it's a terrible comedy or a lousy drama. Based on the light and airy music cues it seems like it might be a comedy, but the jokes are nothing but dull-witted retreads of material that Allen has covered many times before, and not even that long ago. The Alfie/Charmaine plot is pretty much a repeat of the weaker second half of Whatever Works, a film that was only released last year. Its problems on this front are epitomised by the relationship between Brolin and Pinto, which the film treats as if it were charmingly offbeat when in reality it is incredibly awkward, creepy and voyeuristic, which would be fine if the film was an effective drama.

As a drama, the film falls flat because the characters are such broadly drawn caricatures that it is impossible to care about any of their trials. Charmaine, in particular, is such a horrible, distorted vision of femininity that it's hard to imagine the film was written by the same man who wrote Hannah and Her Sisters. The other performers fare no better. Sally, who should be at least slightly more developed than a throwaway strumpet like Charmaine, comes off as shrill and one-dimensional, whilst Freida Pinto winds up playing a character that is one affected quirk away from being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Antonio Banderas, meanwhile, plays his character with such an air of distracted distance from everything around him he seems to have either filmed all his scenes under the effects of some seriously heavy skunk or had his part constructed using footage from other films entirely.

What's most frustrating about the film is that there seem to be clues embedded in it suggesting that Allen knows just how bad it is. The unseen - and pointless - narrator both opens and closes the film with the same quote from Macbeth about how life is "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing", which is the highbrow equivalent of a disaffected shrug, as if Allen is saying "Well, I had to make a film this year, and this one will just have to do." Later in the film Roy, having had his latest work rejected by his publisher (played by The Thick of It and The Inbetweeners regular Alex MacQueen) wonders aloud whether or not he is so blind to the quality of his own work that he can't tell if it is good anymore. Unless Allen is a far less shrewd and intelligent artist than he is, there is no way that he could be so blind to the quality of his own work for the inclusion of that phrase to be accidental.

Ultimately, Allen decides to just stop the film, rather than end it, leaving all his stories dangling at points that are not even satisfying as open-ended questions. I suppose he wants us to imagine what happens next in their lives, but that just begs the question, "Woody, isn't that your job?"

I'll say this much in its favour. It might be bad, but at least it's not Celebrity. It comes disturbingly close, though.

Grade: D