Like a new Rolling Stones album, late-period Woody Allen movies are to be dreaded, not anticipated. With a few exceptions like Scoop and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, for the last 20 years Allen’s output has been dire. His prolific work ethic is part of the problem. There is a reason why directors like Terence Malick average a movie a decade. By insisting on writing and directing a film a year, Allen’s diminishing returns are now threatening to overwhelm his back catalogue.
Along with his knack for dialogue, Allen has also lost his gift for characterisation. All his movies have at least one prototype Allen character — a fussy, intellectual, slightly unattractive man who gets the most beautiful women imaginable. But they were always surrounded by supporting characters who, if not exactly real, fit perfectly in the Allen universe. In his latest film, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, though, Allen creates a bunch of clones.
The best thing to say about You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger is that it has a fantastic cast. Gemma Jones stars as a woman slowly watching her family disintegrate. Her husband Anthony Hopkins has taken up with Lucy Punch, a prostitute who is half his age and has twice his cunning. Jones’ daughter (Naomi Watts) and son-in-law (Josh Brolin) have suitably Allen-esque professions. She is an aspiring art dealer who wants to leave her husband for Antonio Banderas while he is the clichéd struggling novelist obsessed with his neighbour, Frieda Pinto. Rarely has such a fine cast been so badly misused.
The plot is a retread of Husbands and Wives, a Woody Allen classic. But the philandering in Husbands and Wives had a point to it. The emotional stakes were high and lives were at stake. In You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger no one expects fidelity, no one practices fidelity and so no one cares when infidelity takes place. When the actors yell and scream, they seem to do so with a wink and a shrug, as if this is what they are expected to do in a situation when they are being betrayed rather than something that is genuine. If the characters don’t care about their marriages, why should we?
Allen’s decision to base his recent movies, including this one, in London was a mercenary one and it shows. When filming in his beloved New York City became too financially burdensome he shifted locales. But he has no feel for the city and, unlike in his best movies, London is just a place where these characters happen to live. It is not a fully-fledged character in its own right.
You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger begins with a voiceover quoting Macbeth. The reader is informed, “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” It is meant as a comment on the emptiness of the characters’ lives. As the film draws to a close with several dangling plots that seemed to have been forgotten, it suddenly dawns on you that Shakespeare was offering an advance review of You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 6th, 2011.
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