Woody Allen’s 2005 film “Match Point” marked a major shift in the auteur’s career. He swapped out Manhattan for London, and his work took on a crisp new dimension.
In short, he proved he had plenty left to say as a storyteller.
“You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” represents another, less welcome, career pivot. It spreads comedic potential across every character arc but nary a laugh emerges. And it’s clear Allen wasn’t gunning for “Interiors: Part 2.”
The only reminders you’re watching a Woody Allen film are the retro music book-ending the story and Allen’s newest tic, the obtrusive narrator.
What “Stranger” does have is a cast worthy of the director at his creative peak. They collectively give “Stranger” more juice than it deserves.
Allen’s latest set in jolly ol’ England follows a series of interrelated characters, all of whom are going through a romantic crisis. Helena (Gemma Jones) begins visiting a psychic to heal the pain caused by her sudden divorce from Alfie (Anthony Hopkins). Helen’s daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) is frustrated that her novelist husband Roy (Josh Brolin) can’t make a decent living.
Sally distracts herself by fantasizing about her handsome boss (Antonio Banderas), while Roy secretly pants over the gorgeous woman (“Slumdog Millionaire’s” Freida Pinto) he sees from across his apartment window.
Hmmm. It’s so hard to tell where these subplots will go. Audiences could excuse the stock situations if the characters were worth a fraction of our pity, or if Allen gave them something witty to say.
Lucy Punch gets the juiciest role as Alfie’s new girlfriend, a converted prostitute who can’t keep her hands off … his credit card. She’s the physical embodiment of Mira Sorvino’s character in “Mighty Aphrodite,” but without the high-pitched voice or pathos. If we wanted to see a gold digger straight out of Central Casting, we wouldn’t line up for a Woody Allen film.
“Stranger” is predictable when it isn’t being bland, but the cast is so good it’s hard to lose all interest. Hopkins, who looks older but more vital than he has in some time, makes Alfie something more than just a pathetic older man clinging to youth. And Watts uncovers layers in Sally the script doesn’t provide, especially when dealing with her character’s batty mum.
Yet Pinto might be the thinnest female character in Allen’s impressive body of work, one reknown for complicated heroines. She’s so enchantingly beautiful it’s as if it’s all Allen could see while on the set.
The film packs few reasons to stick around to the end, especially given the third-act twist involving Roy’s literary career. The plot device is so hoary it could only work within the context of broad comedy. From there, the other story arcs grind to a halt, and you won’t mind when the narrator announces the finish line is approaching.
Perhaps the best news regarding “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” is Allen doesn’t make any of the actors impersonate him. They simply go through his motions without acknowledging the master’s touch is nowhere to be seen.
(Photo: Woody Allen directs Anthony Hopkins in “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” – Photo credit by Keith Hamshere. Mediapro & Gravier Productions Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)