Sony // 2010 // 98 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // February 7th, 2011
People being driven out of their marriages and out of their minds.
"I made a terrible mistake."
Helena (Gemma Jones, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) and Alfie (Anthony Hopkins, The City of Your Final Destination) have been married for forty years. After all that time, Alfie has suddenly decided to leave Helena for a young floozy named Charmaine (Lucy Punch, Dinner for Schmucks). Alfie and Helena have a daughter named Sally (Naomi Watts, Eastern Promises), who works for a suave art dealer named Greg (Antonio Banderas, The Mask of Zorro) and is married to a struggling novelist named Roy (Josh Brolin, No Country for Old Men). Sally is very attracted to Greg, and the fact that her marriage isn't getting any better makes that fact increasingly difficult to ignore. Meanwile, Roy is attracted to the lovely young Dia (Freida Pinto, Slumdog Millionaire), who lives in the loft across the street. And so, we have set the stage for a merry-go-round of relationships and life changes. How will each of our players fare?
During the opening moments of Woody Allen's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, a narrator paraphrases Shakespeare and informs us that, "Life is full of sound and fury, and in the end, signifies nothing." The film's primary philosophical point is just a bit deeper than that, but only just: sometimes it's best to leave well enough alone, even when well enough barely qualifies as well enough. This is the story of several intelligent, mildly discontented people aggressively working their way towards intense unhappiness.
This is familiar territory for Allen, but then that can be said of most of his films these days. In all likelihood, you either grew tired of seeing Allen repeat himself long ago, or you still enjoy his films for what they are and recognize his best days are probably behind him despite his occasional fits of real inspiration (Match Point, for instance). I fall into the latter camp, as even Allen's disappointing films are often vastly more engaging and intelligent than much of what's out there these days. The number of Allen's unqualified failures can be counted on one hand (I'm looking at you, Shadows and Fog); the majority of his output is a pleasant diversion at worst and brilliant cinema at best. All of that being said, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger definitely falls into the "pleasant diversion" category; quality-wise it lands somewhere in Scoop/Whatever Works territory (though it's a bit less amiable than those films).
At the risk of insulting the considerable effort Allen has put into his cyclical screenplay, the whole affair essentially represents the director throwing up his hands and saying, "People. Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em." The film is built upon similar assertions of similarly trivial yet significant truths, including (but not limited to) the fact that the best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry, the grass (or in this case, the woman in lingerie) looks greener on the other side, what goes up must come down, it isn't what you do so much as the way that you do it, that ignorance is bliss, and so on. All good points, but You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger wins most of its points not for presenting these truths but for presenting them inventively (the screenplay is like clockwork built with relationship difficulties instead of gears). There seem to be fewer memorable zingers in Allen's dialogue than usual, but that's somewhat compensated for by the fact that his construction is so clever.
The impressive cast mostly fares rather well, with Anthony Hopkins standing out as the old man who thinks he needs a young woman in his life. Watch how beautifully Hopkins essays the increasing disappointment at his realization that he likes the idea of being with a woman half his age much better than the practicalities of such a thing. It isn't quite on par with Sydney Pollack's similar turn in Husbands & Wives, but it's still awfully good. Josh Brolin's persona brings a boozy, grouchy masculinity to a character who otherwise seems like something of an Allen surrogate, while Gemma Jones is very good as the woman absolutely convinced that her psychic would never tell her what she wants to hear just to get money. Judy Punch also has a number of the film's funniest moments as the dim-witted tart Hopkins falls for, though it must be noted that Allen once again falls into the trap of making most of his characters either exceptionally smart or astonishingly stupid. Naomi Watts, Antonio Banderas and Freida Pinto have somewhat less interesting roles, but they nonetheless manage to handle them with convincing professionalism.
The 1080p/1.78:1 transfer is sturdy, capturing the film's picturesque London locations quite nicely. The level of detail is strong throughout, depth is impressive and there's a very thin layer of grain that gives the picture a nice filmic quality. Flesh tones are warm and accurate, too. The film isn't one of Allen's most visually striking movies, but it looks as good as one could hope. Curiously, we're given a 3.1 DTS HD audio mix rather than the usual 5.1, but hey, it sounds solid throughout. As you might expect, this is largely a dialogue-driven track which also spotlights a handful of old musical numbers from Allen's record collection (in a familiar touch, Allen underscores a lot of bleak moments with cheerful tunes, taking a cheeky outsider's perspective to the lives of these characters). A couple of night club scenes will make your speakers rumble, but otherwise it's a rather understated track. As is usually the case for Allen films, a theatrical trailer is the only supplement offered.
While I enjoyed watching You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, it must be admitted that the film is only for serious Allen fans. Those less inclined to dig his recent work will probably be better off sticking with Husbands & Wives, Hannah and Her Sisters, and the other, superior Allen films this one often mimics.
Guilty with a sentence of time served.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated R