Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Familiar "Stranger"

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
Spain/US, 2010
Directed by Woody Allen

When it comes to Woody Allen, it's been a cliché since at least 1980 to state a preference for his "early, funny" films. Even if those are his best work—a debatable point—he's made plenty of good films since then. That said, his output over the last ten years has been, to put it charitably, mixed. For each good movie (Match Point, Vicki Cristina Barcelona) there have been at least as many bad ones (Cassandra's Dream, Melinda and Melinda) and about two times as many that rate no more than a "meh" (The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Whatever Works). Because of the high bar set by Woody's earlier works, even the films in the neutral category often feel worse than they are. Such is the fate of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.

When Alfie Shepridge (Anthony Hopkins) goes through a three-quarter-life crisis, he leaves his wife Helena (Gemma Jones), who begins to see a psychic (Pauline Collins) in order to make sense of what's happened to her. Alfie and Helena's daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) is forced to take a job in Greg's (Antonio Banderas) art gallery in order to help support her husband Roy (Josh Brolin), who can't seem to finish the follow up to his one good novel. Sally becomes quite taken with Greg, while Roy develops an interest in Dia (Frieda Pinto), a beautiful musicology student who lives across the courtyard, and Alfie gets engaged to Charmaine (Lucy Punch) a much-younger "actress" and prostitute. 

If this sounds like a jumble of elements from previous Woody Allen films, well, you're not too far off. In his films, Allen has long mined the romantic and spiritual problems of upper middle class people with pretensions of artistic talent, and the themes of faith, fate, and choice presented here aren't new, either. We've reached a point where Allen's characters' obsession with the intellectual world is less of a genuine trait than a signifier of their class and ambitions, a sort of short-hand that grounds his stories in a particular milieu. Though there are at least a couple of occasions when these expectations are slightly subverted, the rest of the story is basically boilerplate Allen.

Even boilerplate Allen can be fine, up to a point, but I think what hurts this film is a lack of a real rooting interest. It's hard to tell if Allen is sympathetic to any of his characters, since there aren't many laughs and most of the ones we do get come at their expense. Even Helena, who is ostensibly closest to the film's moral center, is depicted as an object of ridicule for much of the film. Some characters, like Charmaine, are caricatures, while others (Alfie, for one) are kept at arms length and never quite feel real or relatable. Even so, Allen is still able to coax solid performances out of his cast. Here, Jones and Watts get most of the good moments, though, as a whole, the excellent cast is largely wasted thanks to the weaknesses of the material they're given.

The film's tone swings from silly to cynical a bit past the midpoint in its running time, and never fully recovers. Allen has implied, in interviews, that people who have beliefs like Helena's tend to be happier than those who don't, and the film's strongest thread seems to question the way non-believers treat faith as acceptable for somebody else (read as: non-intellectuals), as long as they themselves aren't inconvenienced. Yet the film feels like the work of an outside observer who doesn't relate to either perspective. The whole thing is presented by a glib narrator, which serves as another distancing tactic in a film that already puts too much space between the audience and the characters. And even though the plot takes a few strange turns—and a few of these digressions never quite pay off—there is a certain sense of going through the motions, which is disappointing.

Now, as I said at the beginning, a lot of what makes this film feel so disappointing is that we know Allen to be capable of far better. This certainly isn't a bad movie by most objective measures. It's just run-of-the-mill, which seems lazy or uninspired in the light of Allen's canon and our knowledge that, in the old days, Allen could have written the incisive monologue or poignant scene Stranger needs to keep us emotionally involved. Perhaps this reaction is symptomatic of a need to reevaluate late-career Allen outside of the context of his '70s and '80s heyday. But even viewed as objectively as possible, Stranger is no more than middling. I hope Midnight in Paris, Allen's most recent film, gets him back on the right track and returns a bit of the characterization and heart to his work that is so desperately lacking here.

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