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You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger: Same old Woody Allen

Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin in a scene from "You Will Meet a Tall dark Stranger."

Keith Hamshere/AP

2 out of 4 stars


What Is It?

Three words: Late Woody Allen. In the autumn of his career, toiling exclusively in Europe, Woody is like an aging cabinet maker still blessed with craft but grown erratic in design.

At best, the little drawers, the ones marked Comedy and Tragedy and Love and Death, pull out smoothly and the whole thing looks relatively attractive and works quite functionally - think Match Point or Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

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At worst, the conception degenerates into a contraption of ill-fitting pieces and rusty old hinges - Scoop is the obvious example.

This one, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, falls somewhere between these shrunken parameters, neither fairly good nor really bad. He's back in London again, with the usual exemplary cast - Naomi Watts, Anthony Hopkins, Antonio Banderas, Gemma Jones among them - and with much attention paid to the drawer marked Mortality. This is about the lies we tell ourselves - Ibsen called them "efficacious life lies" - to ward off the very dark stranger who awaits us all.

How Does It Work?

The premise comes prefabricated: Take two marriages, from separate generations, then break them apart. The oldsters, Helena and Alfie (Jones and Hopkins), have already gone their different ways. Searching for his lost youth, he's taken up with a Woody Allen staple, the bubbly hooker with a heart of brass; looking for a reason to continue, she's settled on Cristal the swami, skilled at telling her clients exactly what they want to hear.

Meanwhile, at a lower rung of the marital ladder, Sally and Roy (Watts and Josh Brolin; pictured at the top of this story) are on the cusp of splitting up. He's another Woody favourite, the dried-up writer; she's just another cliché, the childless wife listening to her biological clock. So they venture off on their adulterous flirtations, the one with the pretty girl across the road and the other with her married boss (Banderas). Let the self-deceptions begin.

Yes, all four characters are labouring under illusions, some more malicious than others. From that point, the mechanical plot heads off on its many turns, some more believable than others. Late Woody Allen is fond of leaving the wicked unpunished (it passes for clear-eyed wisdom in his European fare), but this time he just leaves a whole lot of loose ends.

Maybe that's deliberate, since the picture ostentatiously begins with a paraphrase of the Macbeth quote: "Life's but a walking shadow … full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Apparently, then, pointlessness is precisely the point here. In that sense, at least, the movie works rather too well.

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Does It Matter?

Not if, ultimately, nothing matters. But let's do what Woody doesn't and pull back from that pseudo-profound conclusion to a more modest vantage. There, a Late Woody Allen film is important less as an exemplary artifact than an admirable activity. Nearing 75, the cabinet maker continues to work, continues to struggle with life's joints and fastenings - where things fit, why they fail, when they're beyond repair.

Nowadays, the finished product is occasionally funny, sometimes impressive, and often just laboured. But it's still his unique work, adding to the body and, for him anyway, replenishing the soul.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

  • Directed and written by Woody Allen
  • Starring Naomi Watts, Anthony Hopkins, Josh Brolin
  • Classification: PG
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About the Author
Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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