Woody Allen is so omnipresent in modern American romantic-comedy films that every now and then it’s refreshing to see the master’s take on the genre that he helped shape.
Allen has always been able to draw the complexity out of the simple while balancing five or more distinctly dark characters. In You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Allen achieves just that, creating a highly enjoyable, unnerving addition to his enormous body of work. It’s not his best work, but it’s a memorable gem of a film that proves once and for all that this guy can best most modern romantic comedies in his sleep.
It almost feels wrong to relegate it to a realm ruled by brainless situational snores, because Stranger has an astounding moodiness and psychological depth.
In the typical Allen film, his male characters are projections of himself (and in the past, usually played by himself), and the female characters seem to be representations of women who have frustrated him. This trend repeats in this film but with a unique twist. The women are classic dames comparable to Annie Hall’s title character and Manhattan’s Tracy. And the twist? Allen has split his charming wit, fidgety neuroticism and, for the first time on film, aged self into different characters.
One of those men, perhaps a biting, fictional psychological portrait of the aging Allen himself, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), is the Eve of the film, the inspiration for everyone else’s sin. The elderly, good-natured but self-centered man is played to a pitiable perfect pitch by Hopkins.
After dissolving his 40-year marriage with Gemma Jones’ Helena, Alfie marries the first hot young thing he can get his hands on. In this case, it’s a money-grubbing hooker (Lucy Punch) with something less than a heart of gold. His questionable relationship choices kick start a new wave of infidelity across the London setting.
His daughter (Naomi Watts) is frustrated with her once-promising novelist husband who has become a schlub (Josh Brolin), so she begins to flirt with her debonair and married boss. Speaking of her novelist husband (the neurotic version of Allen, here named Roy), he’s looking to the woman in red for artistic inspiration and hoping for a little something extra. The woman in red, played by the stunningly gorgeous Freida Pinto, is engaged to a more age-appropriate man but never really spurns Roy’s neurotic charm and the web of lies tangles itself.
There’s certainly nothing spoiled here, because the real pull is the sharpest writing seen from Allen in many years. Even the stagecraft is pointed, unsettling and lightning-paced. As these characters get caught in each other’s downward spirals, Allen could have let the viewer sit back and enjoy but instead ropes everybody — including himself — into the entanglement.
None of these fascinatingly flawed characters come out of the film’s plot clean. Woody’s incisive and downright nasty treatment of his characters is a vitriolic comment on love and relationships.
It is often the case with the great aging writers — from Philip Roth to Heinrich Böll — that their anger never subsides over the years. Don’t mistake this anger for bleakness because the film is funny as hell. But it is dour and might only be funny because it is all happening to somebody else, half a world away.
It’s not a great advertisement for London tourism, but it’s a great film