|You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger | Written and Directed by Woody Allen | with Antonio Banderas, Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins, Gemma Jones, Freida Pinto, Lucy Punch, Naomi Watts, and Roger Ashton-Griffiths | Sony Classics | 96 minutes|
Can films be mellow and bitter at the same time? Starting with Match Point
in 2005, Woody Allen's movies have deepened and become more gimlet-eyed about the human condition. Allen observes his characters from a certain angle — even in close-ups he studies them, looking for dignity or beauty and finding confusion. He is more intent on the normality or the banality in their terrible, often criminal misbehavior than he was when he was mocking them and the world they lived in, or edging them into straight tragedy.
In his films of the past half-decade, short-story-like twists lead his feckless characters into ruin, but he lets fate decide whether they'll be rewarded or punished. Sometimes he comes to a stop before we can know which it's going to be. In this new period, which is also marked by a more fluid and involving mise-en-scène and a skillful directorial sleight-of-hand, Allen sets his characters in motion and makes it appear they are damning themselves. He takes himself out of the picture as much as possible, denying us his voice when he uses a narrator, making the films less warm and Woodyish, counterpointing their burnished, unshowy cinematography.
Melinda and Melinda (2004), in which Allen alternated the same story as comedy and tragedy, was the turning point, after which he decided to give this mixture freer play. Since then, each of his movies has been a small masterpiece — I include Scoop and Whatever Works in that category, and especially Cassandra'sDream, one of the few films that fully exposed the corrupt era in which it was made. In You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Allen examines class structure through the lens of light tragedy (as opposed to light comedy). He mixes the pseudo-supernatural plot elements he loves — which are bare bones and fraudulent here — into the dismantling of an unhappy family who, if they thought about it, could be content.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is a film about how we cling to self-deception, how cheesy and permanent that is, how destructive and consoling. The family grow apart in a flaky way, starting with the father, Anthony Hopkins's Alfie. Over the course of the film, he goes from friendly and upbeat to scary and beat-down by hiring and then marrying a call girl (Lucy Punch, in a performance that takes contemporary trashiness somewhere new). His son-in-law, Roy (Josh Brolin, wearing Mark Wahlberg's hair), a failed American novelist and lout among the English, is worse, making a great unethical leap to convince his beautiful neighbor (Freida Pinto) he's worthy of her or anybody. The film is a roundelay of repeated mistakes the characters make that are invisible to them but visible to us. It's all encapsulated in a brief shot of Roy watching his ex-wife (Naomi Watts) undress in the window across from his, a passing moment of illumination and loss.
Most members of Woody Allen's audience want a film from him he will never make. They carry around an imaginary Woody Allen movie in their heads. These dashed expectations will put them in the same predicament as the characters in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger — demanding individuals who want things they are not going to get. It's better to recognize that what his fans resist in Woody Allen's films is what makes those films what they are, x-rays held to the light by a director aware of what the times do to people's lives and what people do to one another, and to themselves.