You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

Written and Directed by Woody Allen Reviewed by Marion DS Dreyfus

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins, Freida Pinto, Naomi Watts, Gemma Jones

One of the many delights of a Woody Allen annual release is that though the casts are different, we know these people. And we 'know' their predicaments.

Dysfunctional men and women in fizzling marriages; desperate bi-polars; older men yearning to stave off impotence or irrelevance via nubile honeys; women unfulfilled with their careers or the lack thereof. Career people in chrysalis or limbo.

The metrosexual mélange, famed population of the toney Upper East Side and the favored haunts of the Hamptons. In this film, as in several of his recent outings, Woody Allen situates his attractive band of locals and ex-pats in an arcadian London that rivals his most beautiful Manhattan cinematographic offerings.

Booksellers and art dealers proliferate in the daily scuffles of the couples being scrutinized. People have to make some sort of living, and books and art are industries, but they are 'clean,' nothing to soil the hand or frighten the hansom cabs. And these are the 'jobs' that are accepted and certified by the type of people populating Allen films and indeed, the Woodsman's real life.

Standing in for the now 74-year-old Woody as "Alfie," yet again, is the snowy-topped plutocrat played by Anthony Hopkins. Feeling his prowess fleeing, though he is very comfortably well-off, he abandons his long-time wife, Helena, played by Gemma Jones. The darkly troubled striving failed doctor cum efforting novelist, Roy, stormily played by Josh Brolin, is married moodily to Naomi Watts, Alfie's daughter, whose desire for children is thwarted by her husband until his latest novel or project is accepted.

Until the novel's acceptance, their rent and basics are subsidized by Naomi's somewhat dotty yet credulous mother, supplemented by an art gallery assistant's job for Sally, who works for the suave, Armani-suited Antonio Banderas.

Across the road, unhappy Josh peers from his window at a haunting guitarist, Dia (Slumdog Millionaire's gorgeous Freida Pinto), who represents something he won't quite verbalize. While he waits for the publisher's decision on his manuscript, he begins seeing the red-swathed beauty for walks and lunch, though she is affianced, slated to marry in the immediate future.

Alfie "dates" a long-faced, colt-like call-girl so quirkily tall and slim-hipped that for a good slab of the film one thought she could well be a he. But no. Desperately lonely without the sweet wife he jettisoned, he impulsively asks his call-girl shrewdie to marry him.

Helena, also hard hit by loneliness, takes comfort in tippling and a fortune teller several times a week. Though the seer, Cristal (Pauline Collins, so touching in Masterpiece Theatre's Upstairs, Downstairs) is bogus, Helena believes in her predictions and insights, and her occult delusionism makes her the most serene character in the film. Afterlives, prelife, contacting the dead, stars in conjunction…my, my.

Voiceover narration beloved of Allen in many of his iconic films indicate the points that characters do not or cannot voice. Cockney Charmaine is so used to her Vegas Johns that she doesn't even know why a man would have to wait for sex-enhancement little blue pills to take effect. Not in her vocabulary zone. Though she is clearly not his age-cohort, dizzy Charmaine (newcomer Lucy Punch) is not so clueless that she doesn't make hay while she can. Furs, jewelry, apartments, clothing. (Must have been a gig to find this woman, Lucy Punch: freakishly tall, horsey features and skinnily voluptuous, with the longest legs since Tommy Tune. On second thought, maybe she is Tommy Tune…?) Alfie soon regrets his culture-free marriage and wallet wail.

Shed of her mopey husband Roy–deep in serious flirtation with neighbor Dia–Sally realizes she wants her boss, gallery owner Greg Clemente. Too late. Greg is already having an affair with the painter being represented by the Gallery owing to Sally's own efforts.

Adultery is a given for these troubled urbanites.

Analyzing the title, one can make the case that it is more metaphor than actuality. We all, of course, eventually meet that "tall dark stranger," a morbid coefficient of all Allen films, even his prior laugh-out-loud funniest, now long gone.

The music and cinematography, always deeply pleasurable in Allen films, match the beauty of the sets, shiny London in the spring (even torrential rainy scenes are lit beautifully, and don't destroy the mood). The cast is superb, spot on, as always. Though the reviewer audience we saw it with was tamped down and rarely laughed, trademark Allenesque laughter hails not from comic lines or particular set-ups as from the viewer's ready understanding of the comic plights of these messed-up people and their life-trajectories, which so many of us empathize with, if we are not actually living at the moment. As well, of course, as from rueful character rejoinders.

TALL DARK STRANGER is couched in this vision of bleak pay for play. Woody with reference to the passage of time and the futility of life—"a tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing" ("Macbeth")—"After all the ambitions and aspirations, the plagiarism and the adultery, what once was so meaningful won't mean a thing. Many years from now the sun burns out and the earth is gone, and many years after that the entire universe is gone. Even if you could find a pill that makes you live forever, that forever is still a finite number, because nothing is forever."

Talk about fatalism.

All the Woody tropes are here aplenty, in a fondly recalled yet disquieting way. Familial chaos, generational unease, mortal discomforts. One of the memes threading these scenes of striving, plagiarism, delusion and pain is a strong moral dimension. Those who do good (a rarity in an Allen film) are mildly rewarded, though not without effort. Those unable to resist the monumentally daft or unethical, however, are not accorded gentle recompense in the Woody canon, which is as morally connected as you can get: Actions are consequential.

TALL DARK is an edgily entertaining, provocative and eye-filling 100 minutes. This will become vintage–already prize-winning– Woody.

David Aronsen writes:

To explain the distinction between falsifiable and non-falsifiable predictions to my students I would contrast two statements. The non-falsifiable one was a fortune teller's "You will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. The falsifiable one was you will see a man with one red shoe walking east on 42nd street whistling Satin Doll before 6PM next Wednesday. Did my powerpoints somehow fall into the hands of Woody Allen, and should I ask for a royalty? 


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