December 17, 2010

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

December 16, 2010

Years ago, whenever a Woody Allen film opened, I was first in line. These days, not so much. That was why I waited until this one reached the dollar cinema before taking the plunge. I’m glad I didn’t pay the full price.

The plot, such as it is, involves the lives of two British couples living in present-day London, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) and Helena (Gemma Jones), the parents of Sally (Naomi Watts) who is married to Roy (Josh Brolin). The elders have divorced because Alfie, like his namesake in a classic 1966 film and its 2004 remake, has serious issues with women and himself.

Sally works at an art gallery, while Roy obsesses over his new novel before stealing the manuscript of a friend who he takes for dead, passing it on as his own, gaining some measure of acceptance, and falling in love with a beautiful young woman across the way.

Sally and Roy also divorce.

Okay, I won’t belabor the ugly yellow color palette that immediately assaulted my eyes after the standard Woody Allen black-and-white credits.

I won’t complain too bitterly about an arch narration, delivered in an irritating voice that tells me what I can clearly see for myself. Allen has come to rely on this device more and more, and I can’t help wondering who he trusts less, himself as a writer or his audience.

Nor will I find too much fault with the music. While always welcome, the great American songbook is right for the main characters in movies like “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan,” and “Radio Days” but wrong for the main characters in this film, who are in their late thirties. The use of classical music is also particularly ham-fisted.

Last week, I wrote a review of “I’ve Loved You So Long,” praising it for the economy of its storytelling, most especially in its final scene.

Toward the end of “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” Sally and her mother talk one last time. Sally wants to borrow money to open her own art gallery. Helena refuses because the fortuneteller she visits regularly has told her this is a bad time for such an investment. Sally asks her mother again why she won’t lend her the money. Once again, Helena says the stars aren’t in her favor.

The argument goes through several more iterations that reveal nothing new about these two characters. The scene doesn’t advance the plot or move the story toward a satisfying conclusion. It simply goes on and on for a couple of very long minutes, during which Allen seems to delight in refusing to give Sally and Helena closure.

The last scene of the movie shows Helena with her “Tall Dark Stranger,” except he’s kind of a homunculus who’s severely hung up on his late wife’s memory. I suppose Allen is trying to be funny and ironic here.

What I was wishing for, instead, was a reason to cheer about Helena’s “happy ending.”

Characters can be hateful, dishonest, or lacking in self-awareness, as long as they have humor or some flaw that reveals just how human they are. Woody Allen used to be a master at negotiating this delicate balance. But lately, he seems to have lost his way.

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