You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger: Woody’s New Look At Life, Love, and Spirituality
As You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Woody Allen’s newest in a series of films set in Europe, started unfolding itself, I began getting a sense of familiarity– a fear that Allen had exhausted the creative rush he had while making such enjoyable Europe-set films as Match Point, Scoop, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The narrator, the old hat arguments, the affairs… it all seemed so played out. But then, something interesting happened. As the latter half of the film played out, Allen began to reveal a new twist on an old theme: spirituality. A firm atheist, all of his films reject the notion of a god, and this one is no different, yet he seems to be reaching a new conclusion about its usefulness. While it’s not perfect, and Josh Brolin is pretty badly miscast, it’s still an enjoyable entry in the pantheon of Woody Allen films.
We first meet Helena (Gemma Jones), an elderly woman who is visiting a fortune teller to try to determine if her life will turn around. Through the help of a narrator, we meet a multitude of other related parties. Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), her husband, is going through a late-life crisis and has left her, choosing instead to pursue romantically a call girl named Charmaine (Lucy Punch). Helena’s daughter, Sally (Naomi), is struggling to be content with a life where her husband Roy (Josh Brolin) is a writer with only one good novel under his belt and working for art galleries instead of running one herself. She gets a crush on her handsome boss at the art gallery, Greg (Antonio Banderas), as Roy begins to have feelings for Dia (Freida Pinto), the beautiful woman in the apartment outside his window who always plays guitar, which distract him from his increasing concern that he’ll never get another book published.
None of these characters are particularly new for Allen, though Hopkins has a number of lovely moments where he clearly feels out-of-place in a young man’s world. He goes to a popular bar and as others dance and rave, he vainly attempts to read the drink menu with his reading glasses. As Charmaine dances with strange men at a club for fellow young people, he sits on the side dressed like a professor. These moments feel honest, and I could have watched a whole film by Allen about an older man’s struggles to feel young again. The usual “Woody character,” Roy, is woefully miscast. Brolin is trying his hardest, but he doesn’t seem like a romantic nor like a writer. His image is one of ruggedness and determination, not one of neurosis and longing. It’s akin to Dolph Lundgren playing a Michael Cera role. He does his best, however, and is too compelling to be a total train wreck.
The real stars are the women though, as they often are in a Woody Allen flick. Naomi Watts is nothing short of radiant, and she has a few quiet scenes of vulnerability and longing that put a big smile on my cynical face. She so often plays the victim of some plot in a film that we forget when she plays romance or comedy, she’s one of the best out there. Freida Pinto of Slumdog Millionaire fame should be a huge movie star– Allen films her lovingly, even giving her character her own musical theme. She’s expressive while also never showing her full deck of emotions, allowing us to read her face, and every time she’s on screen, no warm-blooded male will be able to take his eyes off her– in an industry full of gorgeous people, this is a tribute to her acting ability in addition to her physical attractiveness. Lucy Punch only hints that her character goes beyond the one-note in spots, but Gemma Jones takes her one-note character and fills her with life. She also carries Allen’s take on spirituality in this film, which I’ll discuss in the next paragraph. Please skip the next paragraph if you want to walk into this movie spoiler-free.
Helena goes through the film being mocked by Alfie, Roy, and Sally for her belief in the fortune teller, yet her determination doesn’t waver once. For much of the film, I felt Allen was poking some slight fun at this warm-hearted but misled woman. The only person who shares her beliefs is Jonathan, played by the terrific Roger Ashton-Griffiths, who owns a bookshop specializing in literature regarding astrology and reincarnation. We spent our time being amused by these larks… but at the end, when things haven’t gone Alfie or Sally or Roy’s way, we end with Jonathan and Helena sitting on a bench together in love as the song from the opening credits, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” comes on in the background. Could Allen really be saying that if you believe hard enough, the dreams that you wish will come true? I think he’s too practical for that. His narrator references multiple times Shakespeare’s quote that life is a tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Perhaps Jonathan and Helena’s good fortune is nothing more than luck… but I feel like Allen is suggesting that having something to live for is better than merely living to pass the time. Their happiness doesn’t mean the fortune teller was on the money, but rather that by believing, perhaps Helena controlled more of her own destiny than she realized.
Perhaps the whole film, like the tale of sound and fury, is for nothing. Its dramatic scenes aren’t enormously engaging, and its comedic scenes don’t really get belly laughs. Yet I found the film to be worth my time and an enjoyable experience. Here is a film that’s attempting to say something about life without relying on too many cheap gags or melodramatic moments. It’s content with existing truthfully. It feels more like one of his New York films– there’s nothing that makes it distinctively British other than a few of the accents and some of the lovely shots of the city. Woody Allen may not have been able to do his most focused work here, and he may have miscast his young surrogate character and ignored the unique perspective that he could have brought to a focused movie about Alfie’s feelings. Yet unlike the overwhelming majority of people putting out movies now, Allen still has a voice, a strong point-of-view, and something to say with most of his films. Maybe Allen will never make another four-star film… but like Helena, I live looking forward to the day when Allen drops another masterpiece, and I firmly believe he has it in him.