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Movie Review: You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

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There were seven people (eight counting me) in attendance at the 4:35 p.m. Thursday showing of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, the latest in Woody Allen’s oeuvre. The film continues the indications we’ve gotten over the last decade or so that we have entered the “disposable-afterthoughts” phase of Allen’s career. Hey, you’re as good as your best, not as good as your latest, and anyone who made Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Crimes and Misdemeanors has earned the right to coast their way into that good night.

But if Allen is down to preaching to the choir, his choir remains devoted. Eight people? On a Thursday afternoon? On the last day a film is showing in a second-run theater in a mid-sized, red-state town?

Yes, he has inspired loyalty.

And as far as disposable afterthoughts go, Stranger has enough to recommend it that it’s easy to remember how Allen has inspired such a following.

Right from the start, the experience was a good one. Right from the start, even before the movie rolled. Among my seven co-viewers was an attractive blond, all alone, reading in the dim pre-movie light. Ah, the optimism one can feel before a movie starts, the hope of a good movie to come can permeate every facet of the experience, convincing you that things might be more, that you might be better, that you could charm that blond. Woody can win over Diane Keaton; you could win her over.

And then the trailers rolled. You’ve got to love the hodgepodge of the second-run trailer reel. There’s always a little bit of everything coming soon, with none of the common denominators behind the market-researched, demographically-driven lineup of previews that precedes a first-run picture. Here, there are films that look potentially good (Love and Other Drugs) to mind-numbingly awful (Due Date) to not-bad-but-way-overrated (Inception) to could-be-a-camp-classic (Burlesque). It’s an island of misfits movies, lacking rhyme, no possible reason, mostly ugly but with an occasional gem.

Yeah, I know, what about the movie?

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is another Allen soap opera, Everyone Says I Love You Redux. Gemma Jones (Bridget Jones’s Diary, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) is desperately in search of meaning and direction after her husband, Anthony Hopkins (oh, you know), in the grips of a mid-life crisis, divorces her. Her daughter, Naomi Watts (Peter Jackson’s King Kong, I Heart Huckabees) persuades mom to see a psychic medium for guidance. Naomi doesn’t believe any of it, but mom eats it up and, as she tells husband Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men, Milk) when he protests that Gemma needs psychiatric help, “Sometimes the illusions work better than the medicine.”

Josh knows from needing help. He is a writer, and while his first novel showed promise, he has gone nowhere since. Tensions between husband and wife are aggravated by mom’s neediness and their own dangerous flirtations, Josh with Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire), the beautiful, engaged, woman across the street, and Naomi with her boss, art gallery owner Antonio Banderas.

Meanwhile, Anthony Hopkins is engaged to a prostitute less than half his age, and Gemma Jones wants to move things forward in her relationship with a man who insists on getting the greenlight from his dead wife in a séance before he’ll enter into a new relationship.

Confused? You won’t be after you watch this episode of Soap.

Point is, there is no point. As the omniscient narrator tells us at the film’s offset, this is a tale full of sound and fury. The Macbeth reference serves three purposes: 1) it firmly establishes this as a bit of light fluff, not something of deeper consequence, 2) it foreshadows the running theme of perceived psychic experiences, a la the witches, and 3) it allows Allen’s target audience to pat themselves on the back for getting the allusion.

It also serves a fourth purpose: the film can aspire to be something more, to have meaning, while also having an “escape plan” should the final product not come together. “Hey, we told you this didn’t mean anything. Don’t complain if it doesn’t seem to hold together.” it’s disingenuous.

Disingenuous and unnecessary. This film does have some interesting things to say, or observe, about how people deal with their personal crises. What, the film asks, is the difference between séance and science, between tarot and prayer? Religion and metaphysics and science are all of a cloth. One group of people pleads for table knocking from a dead woman, deluding themselves into thinking some random noises mean anything. Other people talk to a coma victim, echoing lines from that earlier scene and reacting similarly to any flutter of the eyebrows, or perceived flutter. One person
dismisses a psychic’s prediction as a 50/50 proposition, and is later told that the comatose character has a 50/50 chance of coming out of it.

And like Macbeth, characters struggle with guilt over their… ethical lapses, but unlike the tragic king, the soliloquies of Josh Brolin and Anthony Hopkins and others remain in their heads, presented to the audience only through the actors’ eyes. There is no real closure in this story, because although there is some meaning here, it is not meaning that ties up nicely with a bow. It is sound and fury, but it signifies something.

The problem with a film like this is that if there is no real point to the plot, then one must like the characters in order to enjoy the movie, or find the film visually striking. We have to be charmed right along with Diane Keaton in order to enjoy most Allen films. Otherwise, it all comes off as meaningless, narcissistic whining.

And therein lies the problem with Stranger; none of the characters or performances are likeable. I had no emotional investment in any of them, and in fact might have liked it if they had endured more hardship.

As is appropriate given his predilection for jazz, Allen has started making movies that are like jazz compositions. The foundations of any two performances of the same jazz song may be the same, the pleasure is in hearing the improvised variations on themes, how the same song can be re-interpreted.

More often than not, Allen plays the same songs. The question then is how they are re-interpreted. In one film, Larry Craig plays the Woody Allen role, in this one Josh Brolin does. In this film, Roger Ashton Griffiths plays the David Ogden Stiers part. Gemma Jones, meet Dianne Wiest.

So how well are those variations played here? Well Brolin never quite finds the right note, remaining whiny and never becoming believably charming. Would Freida Pinto ever leave her fiancé for Josh? We just don’t find it convincing. Could Anthony Hopkins really be stupid enough to think that call girl loves him? It never seems possible, and so we find him pathetic rather than being emotionally invested in him. And so on and so on.

As a variation on the Woody Allen song, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger never quite hits the right notes, but it is an admirable and at times thought provoking effort.

As for me, did I live up to my promise? I watched that blond walk out of the theater and never said a word to her. Couldn’t find the nerve. Like Josh Brolin, I just can’t play the Alvy Singer part convincingly.

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