“Where is my life heading? I need direction.”
Whether you’re a fan or not, Woody Allen’s ability to churn out a film a year is nothing short of astounding. They are not all masterpieces—in my opinion few of them are—but that only makes the greats greater. His current renaissance abroad in Europe has had a few gems, so rather than the late-90s/early-00s sense of trepidation and lack of interest in what he created, I’ve actually been excited for much of his newest work. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is one such selection, an ensemble piece that appeared light years more palatable to me than his previous Whatever Works—a film I admit no desire to watch. Finally catching up to the inner-workings of Strangers’ central family and its comedy of tragic errors has left me torn, however. Most reminiscent to Melinda and Melinda, the last American work of his oeuvre, I feel I would have enjoyed it back in 2004 rather than presently finding it completely unoriginal. With moral missteps recalling those of Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream mixed with a black comedy akin to the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading, I couldn’t help but remember better films as each scene passed.
Zak Orth’s narration begins as we follow Helena (Gemma Jones) on a quest to discover life’s answers from a psychic (Pauline Collins) after psychiatrists have failed. Lending it a whimsical, storybook tone, his Godly handle on the Shebritch family becomes distractingly forced as we rely on his words for truth, a couple flashback sequences existing in conjunction to understand their familial cracks. Helena is distraught and unable to cope when her husband leaves her after forty years of marriage; Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) has embraced this freedom by moving into a bachelor pad, exercising incessantly, and attempting to relive a twenty-something’s lifestyle; their daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) tries hard to get her husband to want to start a family or at least support her in a desire to open her own art gallery; and that beau, Roy (Josh Brolin), desperately yearns for the success he found with his first novel, a glow of importance long gone after two failed follow-ups and a new tome he can’t even bring himself to complete. Saying these four have issues is a gross understatement and I could embrace the subversion of the idyllic storybook voice as a result, but a mess is all that follows.
There are some definite positives, though, and I’d be remiss to mention them. Where many of the actors failed to live within the stylized tragicomic world, Jones found a way. It’s a performance heavy in melodrama and her motherly, matter-of-fact attitude when spouting the crackpot musings of her psychic onto her family is a treat. Grasping for any affirmation, this gossip is an open book for Collins to con with fraudulent fortune telling, turning everything said back onto her with an air of purpose and understanding. Jones’s Helena still loves her ex-husband, so she is told he’ll never love anyone as much as he loved her; she abhors her son-in-law for throwing a medical degree in the garbage in lieu of fiction literature, so she’s told his newest novel will be rejected and he may once more see success, but in another life; and she badly wants to be a grandmother, so Collins infers that Sally is in love with her new boss (Antonio Banderas) and should pursue an affair to finally get what she deserves. The joke of it all is that everything foretold comes true, less because of fate and more because of selfish self-destruction.
Watts does her best, falling into the usual mold of strong, career-minded woman often typecast in, rarely finding the breath of fresh air role to ignite talk of Oscar buzz like in Mulholland Dr. But while she seeps into the background, her story thread’s fringe characters excite. Banderas is a joy in his subtly lecherous maneuvering as her boss and friend Iris (Anna Friel) is a welcome neurotic mess of everything Sally wished to be. And then there is her husband’s low self-esteem, nebbish sad sack, going through the motions and conscious of his failures. Roy is the most obvious Woody stand-in, especially when the held-in-check fireworks burst between he and Helena, later shown to be a new man when gazing at his neighbor across the way. Washed up, older, and without a clue to what’s in store, his somehow finding a beautiful muse like Freida Pinto is exactly what the role Allen would to play but no longer can due to his old age. Roy should overshadow the film, but the casting of Josh Brolin only hinders its success, allowing Jones to excel instead. Brolin is great, but his brawny, stoic machismo is too ingrained to pull Woody-lite off.
Maybe Woody knew and therefore decided to add another doppelganger in Hopkins’s Alfie, a man who’s thoughts of bachelor life never materialized and instead caused him to buy a new wife in Lucy Punch’s Charmaine. He is over-the-top and a bit silly, which fits the atmosphere if everyone had gone that route, while Punch steals each and every scene. She is the kind of actress who has always been grating, yet somehow turns that intrinsic style here into a three-dimensional representation of a one-dimensional woman. A gold-digger to the letter, the amount of fun had at her expense and through her performance is above all else a sign of what could have been. She is the most memorable piece of the You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger puzzle while other aspects like intellectual property theft, a myriad of love triangles, a litany of failing marriages, and Pinto’s all-red wardrobe distract in a head-scratching way, leaving me ambivalent to the whole. It appears Woody may have had a little writer’s block and decided to rehash aspects from past films to get this one out on time. I guess that’s the risk of being so prolific—they can’t all be revelatory.
 Left to Right: Naomi Watts as Sally and Josh Brolin as Roy. Photo by Keith Hamshere © 2010 Mediapro & Gravier Productions, Inc., Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
 Gemma Jones as Helena. Photo by Keith Hamshere © 2010 Mediapro & Gravier Productions, Inc., Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
 Lucy Punch in Sony Pictures Classics’ You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010). Photo by Keith Hamshere