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There's a New Woody Allen Movie

More Britishness, another psychic, a few skillful bits

Photo: , License: N/A, Created: 2009:07:13 13:17:38

Gemma Jones suffers someone else's mid-life crisis.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

Directed by Woody Allen

Opens Oct. 15

Saying Woody Allen’s latest movie isn’t his best work is as useful as calling water wet. As with new albums by the Rolling Stones, those sublime 1970s were decades ago, and the old saw about something being no Some Girls isn’t just stating the obvious, it’s moot. While Allen has a better batting average than the Stones—a Hannah and Her Sisters here, a Deconstructing Harry there—the writer/director’s output since 2000 is better measured on an underwhelming sliding scale. Filmmaking feels less like his creative wheelhouse than his time to make the donuts. This is the man, after all, who wants to achieve immortality by not dying.

Allen on autopilot can at least ofter a witty moment or two in 98 minutes, and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, his 43rd feature-length directorial effort, delivers a few. Thank British actress Lucy Punch and Josh Brolin for most of those. Punch delivers a chav-tastic take on an Allen regular, an older man’s younger sexpot, and Brolin once again proves he has an agile gift for twisting his all-American handsomeness into being part total heel, part charming cad.

But it’s Gemma Jones who gets to have the most fun. The veteran British character actress’ Helena is a dotty mother who has reached her rope’s end as the movie begins. Her husband Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) has decided to leave her because “she allowed herself to get old,” and the rejection has caused her to down a handful of sleeping pills. Fortunately her daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) finds her, and suggests she seek advice from a seer, Cristal (Pauline Collins), for her depression because, well, sometimes the illusion is better than the medicine.

Helena at first is a high-strung frightened puppy. Her eyes are perpetually wet, as if she’s about to break into tears at the wrong glance. Everywhere she goes, be it Cristal’s place for a reading or Sally’s flat with her American husband Ray (Brolin), she’s asking for a nip of sherry, though whiskey will do in a pinch. She has no idea what she’s going to do, or what compelled Alfie to leave, and she’s almost paralyzed by the endless possibilities of her uncertain future.

The proximity of life’s end has apparently sent Alfie off in search of phantom pussy. He jogs and works out, goes tanning and whitens his teeth, sets himself up in a swank bachelor pad, and ends up calling the actress-turned-escort Charmaine (Punch), who is more than willing to let Alfie buy her affection. Soon, he’s introducing Charmaine to Sally and Ray as his fiancee, and the look on their faces—the blunt shock on hers, the wily recognition of a fellow poonhound on his—is one of the movie’s better understated moments.

Ray and Sally, of course, have problems of their own. He’s a writer with one modest success to his name struggling to finish his next book; she’s an art gallery assistant who wants to start a family and pursue her own gallery. Neither has their head totally in the relationship: Sally finds herself doting on her gallery-owner boss, Greg Clemente (Antonio Banderas), while Ray becomes entranced by the classical guitar-playing young woman (Freida Pinto) he spies in the flat across the way.

In other words, Stranger stirs together a fairly typical Allen roundelay of relationship foibles through which he can skewer sex, aging, desires, etc. The wry comedy here is what feels the most forced. Verbal wit often gets stepped on, and the visual humor—such as Hopkins’ older Alfie getting spruced up to go out with younger co-workers and being unable to read the drinks menu—is trite. Worse, the movie relies on a voice-over narrator to outline the script’s topsy-turvy ironies, paraphrasing Macbeth about all life’s sound and fury signifying nothing.

Stranger does quite well with the fury, though. Awkward moments, such as an uncomfortable conversation pause not filled between Greg and Sally in a car one evening after a night at the opera, and scenes of genuine anger achieve a liveliness other scenes don’t even try to reach. In one extended sequence, both Sally and Ray hear bad news on the same day, and when Helena barges into their flat, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond stalks the characters and they move about the intimate space growing more and more antagonistic with every second. It’s a brisk, lively sequence that pulls you into the story, one the rest of the movie infrequently matches in it willingness to settle for insignificance. ■

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