Blu-Ray Review: Woody Allen’s ‘You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger’

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CHICAGO – “My relationship with death remains the same. I’m strongly against it,” mused Woody Allen at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, during the press conference for his latest London-set comedy. The quote was quintessential Allen, though it had a particular poignance in light of his disappointing yet diverting offering, “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.”

Allen’s insatiable compulsion to create is so all-encompassing that he continually refuses to look back. The DVDs and Blu-Rays for his pictures never contain any extras because the filmmaker doesn’t have time for such trivialities. His innate neurosis makes him unable to view his films once they’re complete because all he’ll see are the flaws. Perhaps it’s that lack of self-reflection that has caused him to so frequently repeat himself. He’s becoming like that old relative who doesn’t realize he’s telling the same stories he told last Christmas. Blu-Ray Rating: 2.5/5.0
Blu-Ray Rating: 2.5/5.0

And yet, even in his weakest pictures, Allen nearly always conjures moments of brilliance, thanks to his inspired verbal banter, his bottomless fascination with the human psyche and his remarkable candidness in exploring his own demons. At age 75, the incredibly prolific writer-director clearly has mortality at the forefront of his mind, though it seems to have clouded his creative drive. Over the past decade, Allen’s films have become increasingly disposable, lacking the sharp humor and meticulous insight that made his work vital for decades. He’s often at the top of his game when he ventures into a new terrain, as he did in 1999’s under-appreciated “Sweet and Lowdown,” 2005’s “Match Point” and 2008’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” Yet whenever the aging auteur returns to the genre he’s renowned for—the New York-based romantic comedy—Allen fails to breathe life into the worn formula. 2009’s “Whatever Works” was a crushing letdown, primarily because it wasted the tremendous talents of the wildly funny Larry David, while placing him in a wholly unconvincing romance with a girl forty years his junior. “Stranger” is a considerable improvement from “Works,” though it shares that picture’s underlying awkwardness.

Naomi Watts and Antonio Banderas are directed by Woody Allen on the set of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.
Naomi Watts and Antonio Banderas are directed by Woody Allen on the set of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Especially unwelcome is the colorless voice of a narrator (Zak Orth) whose hastily delivered exposition adds nothing to the material. He starts the film by quoting Shakespeare’s famous line about life consisting of sound and fury “signifying nothing,” before stating, “Okay…let’s start with Helena.” Would it kill Allen to come up with a better transition between those thoughts? Anyway, let’s start with Helena (Gemma Jones), the suicidal old biddy who relies on fortune tellers to maintain her quaking belief that life has a purpose. Helena’s husband, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), has left her for a much, much younger woman (Lucy Punch), in a foolish attempt to make himself feel youthful. This decision is met with much eye-rolling from his daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts), whose marriage to creatively blocked author Roy (Josh Brolin) is beginning to resemble a dead shark. Both Alfie and Roy are running from the inevitable—whether it be physical death or the death of one’s career. Roy is afraid to finish his long-delayed novel for many of the same reasons that Allen is afraid to stop making pictures.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on Feb. 15, 2011.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on Feb. 15, 2011.
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

It’s always enjoyable to see a game cast thrusting themselves headfirst into an Allen script, even if it’s as stale and routine as this one. Jones is easily the most compelling character, as her despair becomes externalized in the form of delusional optimism bordering on madness. She’s as funny as she is heartbreaking, and if Allen had made the whole film about her (a la “Another Woman”), he may have had something special. Watts is equally terrific, even in sequences where her character makes a predictable trip towards disillusionment. There’s a quietly powerful moment in the front seat of a car where she mistakes the inebriated glances of her attractive boss (Antonio Banderas) as an open flirtation. As aspiring actress and part-time prostitute Charmaine, Punch gets an instant laugh when she first appears, with her unsettlingly wide eyes outlined by gobs of eyeliner. Hopkins is so immensely uncomfortable in his scenes with her that he’s hilarious, though unintentionally so. To paraphrase Jennifer Coolidge in Christopher Guest’s comic masterpiece “Best in Show,” Alfie and Charmaine look as if they could not talk or talk forever, and still find things to not talk about.
The script’s romantic pairings are so shoddily constructed that they ultimately collapse under the weight of their own absurdity. The characters’ “confusion” barely masks a fatal lack of tangible passion. No one appears more ill at ease than Freida Pinto, the strikingly gorgeous actress from “Slumdog Millionaire,” cast in the role of a sexy neighbor who catches the wandering eye of Roy. Pinto seems visibly put off when Brolin’s character outs himself as a peeping tom, and that note carries throughout her entire performance, even when she’s supposed to be inexplicably infatuated with Brolin. There’s no reason why “Stranger” should work at all, but the film has enough strong acting, clever writing and at least one sublime twist to make it worth checking out (no more than once) in 1080p High Definition (with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio).

‘You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger’ is released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and stars Josh Brolin, Naomi Watts, Anthony Hopkins, Gemma Jones, Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto and Lucy Punch. It was written and directed by Woody Allen. It was released on Feb. 15, 2011. It is rated R. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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