Set in London, Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is a breezy parable in which the people who end up happy are delusional nitwits (they subscribe to spiritualism, although any old religion could substitute), while others get their dreams of success or romance or a new lease on life brutally dashed. The staging and cinematography (by the great Vilmos Szigmond) is fluid, seemingly effortless; the pacing is masterly; and the actors are attractive and engaging. The tropes are familiar from Allen’s other films (and short stories) but have never been juggled so deftly, with so little fuss. In his mid-70s and working mostly abroad, Allen has settled into a new groove. But it’s not a deep or enlivening one. His despair has finally become weightless — a reflexive shrug.
A punchy, somewhat wry American narrator introduces the characters so that Allen doesn’t need to waste time with expository dialogue: He can cut to the complaints. Two miserable couples occupy the foreground. Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) apparently woke up one morning, decided he didn’t want to grow old and die, and dumped his wife, Helena (Gemma Jones), whom we meet at the flat of a fortune teller, weeping and reaching for the Scotch. She gets good news about her future, which she dashes off to tell her daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts) — who’s unhappily married to Roy (Josh Brolin), a bitter American writer with a moderately successful debut novel and others that didn’t live up to his promise. And so the starry-eyed wanderings begin: Sally is magnetized by a wealthy and magnetic gallery owner (a sleek, magnetic Antonio Banderas), while Roy is entranced by an entrancing cellist (the entrancing Freida Pinto, of Slumdog Millionaire) in the window of a building across the street. Eager to prove he’s no fogey, Alfie essentially buys himself a long-legged, bleached-blonde Cockney call girl, Charmaine (Lucy Punch), to show off to his daughter and gym mates.
Once again, Allen’s casting agents have rounded up the hot actors of the moment, all no doubt thrilled to do their requisite Woody Allen film for scale. He moves them around like an older, lewder Gepetto, but they do, nevertheless, bring something of their own to the puppet stage. Watts (who was born in the U.K. but raised in Australia) has concocted a musical English accent and uses it cleverly, to help Sally keep up the appearance of insouciance. Playing the third uneducated call girl of Allen’s oeuvre, Punch brings out Charmaine’s earnestness, letting the clothes and jewelry and makeup signal the woman’s innate and unflagging tackiness. No adjective of mine could do justice to Pinto’s skin tone, before which caramels would melt with envy. Gemma Jones has the least nuanced character, but whenever she flutters onscreen she gives the movie a lift, a touch of goosiness. In the end, though, it’s Brolin’s picture. I admit I’ve underrated him in the past, unaware of the extent to which he can transform. Roy is unkempt and thickened, but his anger at the cosmic injustice of having no talent seeps out of his pores. When he puts the moves on Pinto’s cellist, he’s not just another blabbermouth Woody Allen Lothario. He needs this woman so he can once more exist.
Brolin has an urgency the movie otherwise lacks, but it comes from the actor and not the script: We have no clue what Roy is even writing about. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is like Husbands and Wives without the mess and madness, without the lacerating eruptions that lifted it out of faux-Bergman territory — and once or twice surpassed the master. At the beginning of this movie, the narrator announces, “Shakespeare said, life is ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’” William Shakespeare, of course, said no such thing. He put the line in the mouth of Macbeth, a mass murderer whose wife has just expired and whose kingdom is crumbling. (Shakespeare’s own sentiments are more likely to be found in the sonnets or, toward the end of his career, the soliloquies of Prospero.) I don’t mean to compare Allen to Shakespeare, only to suggest that if he’s going to invoke one of literature’s most nihilistic lines to frame a flyweight drama about unpleasant people, he has missed Birnam Wood for the trees. How can Allen begin a new script with all the big questions settled? He’s gracefully going through the motions to keep emotions at bay.