While her daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) and Sally's husband Roy (Josh Brolin) both look outside their marriage for romance, Helena (Gemma Jones, "Bridget Jones's Diary"), whose own husband Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) has just left her, turns to a fortune teller for advice and is told "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger."
The first shot of writer/director Woody Allen's latest is an exterior London street scene, tinged a off putting nicotine yellow, and while the film's color subsequently balances out, that ugly stain remains. Allen's tale this time around concerns four members of a family, none of them likable, all making stupid choices and tripping themselves up. It's a rather sadistic film whose only out and out laugh is the wardrobe choice Alfie's new and inappropriate fiancee Charmaine (Lucy Punch, "Dinner for Schmucks") thought suitable to wear to meet Alfie's daughter, a thigh high lace up black stretchy thing right out of Frederick's of Hollywood.
Roy, the American in the bunch, ditched a career in medicine (he has the degree, but not the license) to become a writer, but hasn't earned a living at it in years. Sally is art gallery owner Greg's (Antonio Banderas) assistant, but her salary doesn't cover their expenses. Their rent in a very nice area of London is paid for by Helena, who drops in frequently to drink their Scotch and spar with her son-in-law. Sally indulges her mom's reliance on Cristal (Pauline Collins, "Shirley Valentine"), her fortune teller, while Roy calls a spade a spade.
At first Alfie doesn't quite know what to do with his newfound freedom, but when he calls a call girl for the first time, he's smitten, and proposes marriage. But his wife Charmaine draws lots of attention at their gym and soon she's cheating with their personal trainer. By the time he figures out he should never have left Helena, she's seeing occult bookshop owner Jonathan (Roger Ashton-Griffiths, "A Knight's Tale," "Gangs of New York"), having convinced herself he is her fated match. Meanwhile Sally's falling for her boss, who relies on her for everything from bringing in his lunch to finding interesting new artists, including her former classmate Iris (Anna Friel, "Me Without You"). Back home, Roy gazes out the window at new neighbor Dia (Freida Pinto, "Slumdog Millionaire") playing her guitar and invites the engaged young woman out to lunch. She responds to his flirtations (unevenly I might add - Pinto shows a distinct look of distaste when Brolin starts in that, considering his pitch, is the more appropriate response), shoring up confidence in a man who doubts his talents. When he finally learns his most recent book has been rejected yet again, he also hears that a friend, Henry Strangler (Ewen Bremner, "Trainspotting"), was killed in a car accident and he's the only one who's seen Henry's first, brilliant novel.
There are so many things off about "Dark Stranger," beginning with the grating voice of Zak Orth ("The Other Guys") as the film's unnecessary narrator. Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin have never had such unfortunate hair stylings and Watts's frustrated Sally becomes such a shrewish character Allen requires the actress to call her own mother an 'imbecile,' words Watts cannot make believable. Jones, with her clear eyes, gently faded beauty and lavender beaded cardigan is loved by Vilmos Zsigmond's camera, but her character is so deluded any sympathy flies out the window. Although Alfie takes midlife crisis to unprecedented proportions, Anthony Hopkins at least gets to show a little backbone and a lot of patience and attempt to right a wrong, the only actor to come off OK here. Banderas is saddled with one of those characters who must appear to be leaning one way only to do an about face to make the plot work.
The only real pleasure one can have with "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" is with Allen's neat screenplay structure, studded throughout with all kinds of parallels, both obvious and ironic. There's a lot of ying and yang going on from the two '50-50' chances that hang over Roy to a couple each seduced out of a marriage by music to the way Alfie's fitness craze undoes him with two different women. There are two significant pairs of earrings; two post-Helena pads, one black, the other white; two excursions for Sally to pick out presents for another woman and the crystal ball in Jonathan's book shop that signifies another Cristal in Helena's life.
Woody seemed rejuvenated when he first filmed in London with "Matchpoint" and again in Barcelona with "Vicky Cristina," but subsequent outings have had diminishing returns. Like his character of Roy here, Woody may need a new muse.
Robin did not see this film.
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