Another year, another Woody Allen movie: since 1982, the prolific filmmaker has churned out precisely one film a year. 41 features (as director) since 1969. And at age 75 he shows no signs of slowing down, as evidenced by the loose, breezy You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, an unusually light comedy that recalls some of the director’s 1970s output.
The titular Tall Dark Stranger is a metaphor for what we’re all looking for: something better than what we have. As described by an unseen narrator (Zak Orth), quoting Shakespeare, this is a “story of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Characters scuttle about searching for answers to their problems, ending up in a different place than where they started, no better or worse. Scratch that: sometimes worse.
Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) has just left his lovely wife Helena (Gemma Jones) for young ‘actress’ Charmaine (Lucy Punch). As Alfie lavishes gifts upon his new young bride, Helena finds solace in psychic Cristal (Pauline Collins), who promises her that better things are on the horizon.
Meanwhile, Alfie and Helena’s daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) is having her own set of problems. Her unemployed husband Roy (Josh Brolin) struggles to finish his new novel when he’s not ogling the woman in red (Freida Pinto) across the courtyard. Sally is unsatisfied in her marriage, and might be falling for her new boss Greg (Antonio Banderas).
Each of these characters goes through life-changing events during the course of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, but they all end up more or less the same as they started; not in the same place in life, but they’re the same people, that’s what’s important. It’s a comforting theme, and Allen’s films have become a form of comfort food during the past 10-20 years.
What has surprised me the most about his work during this time is the consistency of quality. While the plot and tone can differ wildly through the genres he’s covered – comedies, romances, dramas, thrillers, even a musical – each feels about as good as the last; the ones I admire most (Deconstructing Harry, Match Point) aren’t that far off from the ones I admire least (Scoop, Cassandra’s Dream).
That’s not necessarily a compliment; Woody’s best years are clearly behind him, and I don’t think he’s made a great film since Crimes and Misdemeanors.
But every year, each seems good enough, and Tall Dark Stranger is no exception. The film always maintains interest despite a meandering plot that announces its own irrelevance (a great cast helps – Brolin, in particular, shines), the mood is agreeable, and there are some chuckles to be had. Afterwards, however, I felt somewhat unfulfilled; it’s a pleasant-enough film, but lacking in substance.
Woody is still a talented writer, but he’s lost a step as a director, and his storytelling has suffered in recent years; Tall Dark Stranger showcases an over-reliance on the narrator to tell the story rather than what we actually see on the screen (this was also my chief gripe with Vicky Christina Barcelona).
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger can be recommended chiefly to fans of the director; still, I’d comfortably rank it as a lesser item on Woody’s filmography.