Sunday, November 7, 2010

Woody Allen's Tall Dark Stranger: A Fool's Tale

With this writer/director/auteur of over forty films releasing a new one, like clockwork, every year, it can be hard to keep up any more with the latest Woody Allen flick. Sitting in his latest, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, the crowds were thin, and I was feeling almost sorry that Allen seems to be losing even his core audience of die-hard New Yorkers.

Yet as someone who has seen every one of them, I can tell you, they are - with few exceptions - a pleasure. Those exceptions have been coming more recently lately. His most forgettable films - Hollywood Ending, Anything Else, and Cassandra's Dream - have all come in the past decade, rehashing old jokes, laying clunkers, or boring us with uninspired characters. Allen has also relocated to London, mixing up his traditional New York locale with some European fare such as Match Point and Vicki Christina Barcelona, which may be strong films but nevertheless leave behind his famed New York venue. With You Will Meet..., Allen is back in London again, and Allen is once again strictly behind the camera, though the characters are classic Allen nudnicks and nebishes recognizable since Love and Death and A Midsummer's Night Sex Comedy.

Allen is usually on to something when incorporating classic theater like Aeschylus or Shakespeare, and in You Will Meet... he opens with a quote from King Lear: "life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." This is the quote that the fool tells the king (the fool is the only character in Lear who shows any wisdom) and though that's the last time we hear the quote (until the movie's end) and there's actually no reference to Lear in this movie, a little understanding of Lear goes a long way to appreciating the comic foibles of these characters.

In Lear, the king divides his kingdom amongst his daughters - to his misfortune and regret. In You Will Meet, the sixty-something Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) has decided to divide his kingdom, in a manner of speaking, by leaving his wife. He's doesn't fancy himself as "old," and is ready for some randy fun. His devastated wife, Helena (Gemma Jones) seeks out a fortune teller who begins counseling her on her future, and how to cope. What Helena doesn't know is that her daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts) has hired the fortune teller as a way to buck up her mother.

But needless to say, things don't go quite as Sally plans as the newly confident Helena begins berating Sally's husband, Roy (Josh Brolin), a writer who's been on a long dry spell and whose confidence is suffering.

As in most Allen films, these four characters eventually find themselves in flirtations with other people: Sally with her boss, a suave gallery owner named Greg (Antonio Banderas), and Roy with the woman who undresses in the window across the alley from his house (she turns out to be the daughter of a famed literary of Allen's typically neat coincidences). Meanwhile, Alfie finds himself marrying a twenty-something hooker, while Helena...told she will meet a tall dark stranger...eventually meets a short, balding, pasty man who she is immediately smitten with.

While the character's peccadilloes are familiar to any fan of Allen movies, the device of the fortune teller gives this film its unique pleasure. What is fate, Allen seems to be asking, and can one foretell it, or even have it under control? All the characters - with the exception of Helen - end the movie on a precipice of fate, where their lives could seemingly go in any direction: disaster, or salvation. In the case of Roy and Alfie, it's even a pretty neat fifty-fifty (in Roy's case, a friend who is given a fifty-fifty case of recovering from a coma; for Alfie, it hinges on a paternity test). For Sally, fate seems to have intervened in the form of bad timing, which leaves her potential affair with Greg untested.

As in Lear, the fool seems to have wisdom while the wise seem to have only regret. Only Helen, foolishly believing in her make-believe fortune-teller, ends up believing that she has successfully seized control of her fate.

You Will Meet...certainly isn't Allen's most lavishly produced work. His budgets seem tighter, and his camera work has been pared down to single takes and natural lighting, giving the film the feeling of more inexperienced indie fare. Brolin isn't really a natural Allen actor (he comes off too intensely one dimensional, I think, to carry off the dark comedy in the way that say, a Banderas or Larry David can). And with the various character story-lines ending unresolved on the brink of revelations, the film feels less dramatically driven than something like Match Point. But it's a smart, sly comedy...something that only a true master like Allen can throw off so breezily. This is no Annie Hall, or even Manhattan Murder Mystery. And as a crooner of lost love and regret, Allen has yet to be able to mine the pathos he last struck in Sweet and Lowdown. Nevertheless, with its subtle parody of our modern foibles of the heart, You Will Meet...holds its own in the cannon of Woody Allen comedy.

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