You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010, Woody Allen)

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HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Since his return to some degree of filmmaking legitimacy with Match Point, which followed his escape from a DreamWorks contract that demanded only comedies, Woody Allen has regained some of his grasp on the critical establishment and the widespread cultish attention afforded each of his new releases, though not with anything like the fanfare he once automatically received. The consensus, at least pre-Midnight in Paris, is still that Allen isn’t the surefire master he used to be. Maybe you shouldn’t listen to me, then. Of his films from 2004 to 2011, the only two that I don’t think are something akin to terrific are Cassandra’s Dream and Whatever Works. Is this some sort of fanboyish bias? It’s certainly possible, but I can’t see over it to tell. All I know is, these movies speak right to me and I grin from ear to ear all the way through them.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is, again disregarding subsequent work for now, Allen’s best film since Match Point. Press materials bill it as one of his dark, brooding dramas from the Interiors mold, but in fact it’s a new sort of beast, with some of the character-led dramatic bleakness of Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream but without any suspense elements. And the distinction is misleading above all because the film is extremely funny, if in a wry and low-key fashion that also seems a far cry from the broader comedy of Whatever Works and Scoop. It seems fair to liken it, in fact, to someone like Todd Solondz, to give a contemporary example, in its simultaneous affection for its characters and derisive laughter at their particular absurdities.

Stranger follows four lead characters and spends a healthy bit of time with each. Josh Brolin, in an impressively multifaceted stand-in Woody Allen performance, is Roy Channing, a frustrated writer to end them all who lives in fear of his new book being rejected — which, this being an Allen film, it is, resulting in a crisis of conscience approached with a macho shrug. A friend had recently shown Roy his own book, a masterpiece of sorts, just before dying in a car accident; seeing devilish opportunity, Roy passes it off as his own to his editors. And as his marriage crumbles, he courts the classical mysterious lady across the street (Frieda Pinto, of Slumdog Millionaire fame) and she even breaks off her own engagement for him, turned on by his flirty advances. But Roy’s world comes gloriously apart when it’s revealed that his nameless ghost writer isn’t as dead as once expected; Brolin’s boneless walk out of frame is one of the great defeats in Allen’s entire canon.

Roy’s wife is Sally, a gamely nervous Naomi Watts, whose major angle upon shedding the deadbeat writer husband is her pursuit of a dream quite Allenesque: the opening of her own art gallery. Along the way, she works for the marvelously well-cast Antonio Banderas as a smooth-talking gallery owner and (another Allen conceit) opera fan. Sally tries to throw herself at him even after discovering that he’s bedding a mutual friend, resulting in some embarrassment that peaks with another of the director’s many cold and deeply felt breakup scenes, Watts pouring her heart out as Banderas pretends to be having a different conversation. It’s worthy of Manhattan or Stardust Memories.

Sally’s father Greg, brilliantly fleshed out by Anthony Hopkins in a merciful change of pace for him, has hit the ground running with his midlife crisis, staying obsessively fit and trying to overcome aging through agile workouts and sexual fervor, but after leaving his wife he finds the single life less alluring than he expected; Allen gets this across beautifully by placing Hopkins in settings wherein his out-of-sync displacement is obvious and reflected in the space around him, a bit of modernized German expressionism. Eventually he begins seeing a prostitute, Charmaine Foxx (hilarious Lucy Punch replacing Nicole Kidman in a thankless part that she nails completely), and at first enjoys the feeling of virility — before the age difference and Charmaine’s financial expenditures begin to overtake Greg’s life. By the end, he’s a desperate man threatening the people around him with a wronged Hannibal Lecter look in his eyes.

Only Greg’s former wife, Helena, seems to come out all right. Gemma Jones plays her as the constantly optimistic and self-centered doting mother who’s harnessed the vague predictions of a psychic named Cristal as her entire calling and roadmap for life. They even lead her to new romance with the owner of an occult bookshop, though even he forces her to compete with his dead former wife. Helena drives everyone bonkers with her constant invocations of Cristal’s predictions, but in a wonderfully cynical touch, her belief in such nonsensical hocus pocus seems to give her a marked advantage over the three other central characters. Her scenes even seem more colorful, rosier and filtered and sunny; it’s not merely that she’s gullible, more that she’s so myopic and compulsive about her own happiness that she sees nothing else.

That’s the closest we get, really, to the central Woody Allen commentary on the pointlessness of life. As in his other recent films, to a degree Tall Dark Stranger seems to undermine the bleak worldview that’s always been Allen’s stock in trade. True, three of the four characters are miserable most of the way through, but there’s something delightfully diabolical about all these bad feelings and dead ends; as in Solondz’s Happiness, we feel set up to laugh at these characters’ misfortunes in a manner never exhibited in Allen’s older dramas like Another Woman, but we also care about them — they feel vivid and weighty and every one of them gets plenty of laughs without feeling excessively heightened, Allen gradually finding a way to rein in some of the staginess that’s been a crucial element to his dialogue. It seems less important to him now to satirize the upper classes than it is to satirize the silliness of existence at large. The irony is rich and pleasurable, especially in the many scenes that play with the teetering edge between painful humor and surprisingly ripping pathos. It’s bleak, but somehow joyfully so?

It helps that the movie is a major technical leap from Allen’s last several, pointing the way forward to the jarringly perfect Midnight in Paris — Allen has chosen one of his best-ever casts here, with everyone clearly thrilled to be working with this material. Watts and Brolin are believable as both individuals and a couple on the rocks, but the film belongs to the elders: Gemma Jones deserved far more praise than she got for the way her wide-eyed grandmotherly manner gives her an out for her callous commentary, the way she can seem lost in the most familiar surroundings and will knock her sherry back with not so much as a glance to the side. And you’ll be hard pressed to name a time you’ve recently been so taken with Anthony Hopkins, whose careful and remarkably trustworthy bringing to life of a Viagra-popping senior longing for a second chance at the wildness of youth is alternately tragic and hysterical. Allen’s script is deft enough that we don’t side with any particular creature here; everyone has their reasons, and all are equally good and bad at once.

Meanwhile, Allen’s camerawork — here with the help of the legendary Vilmos Zsigmond — has grown so fluid in the last decade it’s hard not to sit back and just marvel at the Dial M for Murder-like manner in which he immerses us in his action and blocking. The camera moves around in wildly unpredictable but steady tracking shots around tiny spaces, especially Brolin and Watts’ apartment, following actors with incredibly consistent dedication that never removes us from the story. Allen’s always favored long takes when possible, but between this and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, both consisting of a long series of complicated tracking shots, he seems to be on to a whole new tactic of involving everyone in his characters’ often stark inner worlds.

Look, I engage with this film on such a basic level I’m not sure I can really defend it against the widespread feeling that it’s just low-tier Allen trying to keep his old-fashioned ways alive in London and just adding another project to the pile in the end, and if you don’t have much regard for the humor and bitterness embodied in this film there’s nothing I can do to convince you it’s great. But it plays me like a flute.

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