Cinema Reservoir
Breaking Cinematic Opinion and Observation

You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger

 

So, I saw Woody Allen’s latest film a few weeks ago and put off writing about it for no other reason than I’m a professional procrastinator.  I had been excited about this film for quite a while, as constant readers no doubt know that I am a huge Woody Allen fan.  What excited me the most about the film was the title, which I think is probably his best title to date (I’ll start off small and lead gradually into more adept criticism).  The title is, of course, a double entendre – the “Tall Dark Stranger” is, at once, a delightful prospect to a lonely, recently divorced character and secondly, a horrifying prospect for a man obsessed with staving off the inevitable “Dark Stranger” we are all destined to meet.

These two characters – Helena (Gemma Jones) and Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), have problems which are at the core of the film.  Recently brushed aside by Alfie, Helena has sought comfort, unsuccessfully, in the arms of psychiatry.  While Alfie, obsessed with keeping healthy and apparently going through a late-life crisis has taken up with a semi-retired prostitute, Charmaine (Lucy Punch – in a role vacated by Nicole Kidman).  Helena and Alfie’s daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts) is disturbed by her fathers behavior and doesn’t know exactly what to do about her mother, so she sends her to charlatan fortune teller, who she knows will at least give her a positive forecast as long as she’s paid.  Helena isn’t Sally’s only problem, however; her husband Roy (Josh Brolin) is a washed up writer, taking odd jobs here and there while he whines about how nobody will accept his new novel.

Their lives are already a mess, but introduce a few tall dark strangers into it and things become even worse.  Sally flirts with the idea of trading in Roy for her suave boss (Antonio Banderas) and Roy becomes enamored of Dia, the woman across the street (Frida Pinto) who he can see undress through her unguarded window.  Alfie realizes that the stability he traded in when he decided to go for a younger model comes at a humiliating price (drooling male personal trainers/loud night clubs).  It is only in Helena’s storyline that anyone finds any happiness, as she indeed meets the dark stranger foretold by her psychic.

There isn’t really any new territory covered here by Allen (not in itself a bad thing) and you could very much group this in with his last film, Whatever Works, as  a film about the inherent misery everybody seems doomed to live with.  In Whatever Works, however, the subject  matter was treated in a much more lighthearted way.   There’s a great scene in the film where (in one take) Helena visits Sally and Roy, presumably just to annoy and put down Sally’s husband, who her fortune teller prophesied would be a failure.  In this scene, Roy mocks the fortune teller, coming just shy of revealing to Helena that they all know her to be a fraud before Sally hushes him and tell him that “sometimes an illusion is better than the medicine.”  This is what I took to be the central theme of the film, although the narrator announces early on that oft quoted Shakespeare line about life being full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  *The theme song of the film is When You Wish Upon A Star.  Illusions of some sort or another play a large role in Dark Stranger – Alfie’s illusion that he needs a young woman to be happy, Sally’s dream of opening up her own art gallery, Helena’s belief that the man she is seeing can commune with his dead wife via Ouija board.  Roy even sets up an elaborate illusion of his own to solve both his writers block and his flirtations with Dia.  With the exception of Helena, none of these self deceptions pan out, most likely because the other characters never fully buy into their own personal illusions.

This is a strange movie for several reasons.  The strangest being that, for a comedy, it has no jokes in it. Woody Allen seems to rely solely on the hope that the audience is intelligent enough to wade through all the dialog and discern for itself what is and isn’t funny.  It’s a very odd approach and at times the film feels more like a drama than anything else.  Woody Allen is notorious for not directing actors and in this film it really shows, especially with Anthony Hopkins character, who almost seems to be acting in a different film (though, this may be due to the fact that he doesn’t really appear in any scenes with the other major characters).  So the performances are kind of all over the place (again not necessarily a negative).  Still, the film consistently holds your attention and Gemma Jones really steals the show as a boozy old optimist who, in the end, does find happiness even though she comes off as being completely oblivious.  Like I said, you could pair this with Whatever Works, and have two films basically about the same subject the first film being the lighter take, while this one comes off as the slightly darker sister film.

{My two biggest complaints with the film are 1.  the narrator takes up too much of the script (it’s a good fifteen minutes into the film before the narrator stops talking about the characters and lets them speak for themselves.)  and 2. At the end of the film, it seemed like Woody Allen just stoped writing and ended everything, save Helena’s story.}

There… whew, now I think I’ll do exactly what I didn’t like about the film and just end abruptly.

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