We have a tendency as filmgoers to take Woody Allen for granted. The fact that he is still chugging away, knocking out a film a year at 74 years old, is indeed impressive, and one frequently marvels at not only the consistent quality of his work, but the relative indifference when he hits pay dirt--i.e., if some young up-and-comer had knocked out a Vicky Cristina Barcelona or Match Point, he or she'd have been hailed as the Second Coming, but when it's Woody, we just chalk it up as an expectation, rate it on a comparative scale to his previous masterworks, and move on. It's not fair to him, or to the work.
But there's a flip side to that notion. The full production of a picture a year, from script to shooting to cutting to marketing, doesn't always leave a lot of room for rewrites and second guesses, and sometimes the resulting product isn't quite up to snuff--not just by the Allen standard, but those of mainstream cinema in general. So we must ask ourselves: had clinkers like The Curse of the Jade Scorpion or Small Time Crooks bore something other than the Allen signature, would we have even seen them? Or do we just give the lesser pictures a pass, because the same prolific system that produces them also begets the occasional gem?
These are the kind of questions prompted by Allen's latest picture, which is titled You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and is very weak indeed. It's not a bad film outright--that Allen even has that in him is dubious--and is certainly watchable. But the filmmaker is off his game, veering uneasily between half-hearted comedy and shrug-worthy drama, and ends up exposing some of his familiar flaws.
It is a family story, and a tale of marriages unraveling. When the film begins, Helena (Gemma Jones) and Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) have recently divorced, their 40-year union unable to withstand his late-life crisis and her bouts of anxiety. He finds solace in a sports car and workout regiment; she ends up spending the lion's share of her time seeking the advice of a rather shady psychic, and making frequent (and unannounced) visits to their only offspring, Sally (Naomi Watts). But Sally's marriage to Roy (Josh Brolin) is in its own trouble; he's a novelist who hasn't been able to live up to the promise of his first book, and isn't doing much in the way of providing for their future, so she ends up going back into the workforce as the assistant to Greg (Antonio Banderas), a handsome gallery owner. Sally's attracted to her boss, while Roy is drawn to the lovely Dia (Freida Pinto), whose apartment window faces his office.
Their story is narrated (by Zak Orth), a device Allen has used numerous times before, but here it feels like the product of laziness, his way or zipping past scenes he doesn't feel like writing ("Sally announced to Roy that she was starting her own gallery and wanted a divorce"--um, maybe that's a scene worth showing us!) or dodging expositional dialogue. The explainers he does work in to the conversations are particularly stodgy and stilted ("Please, let's not relive everything constantly"), a problem that is growing more noticeable with each passing film.
Most of the performances work. Watts, in particular, is magnificent--believably boxed-in, sexy as hell (and in an unforced, throwaway way), and charming in her puppy-dog crush on Banderas, who is better here than he's been in years. They share a scene in his car, at the end of an evening of drinking and confessing, that is charged with the genuine eroticism of longing; it's an arrestingly sensual scene with no physical contact whatsoever, all played in the pauses and the looks and the body language. Hopkins's work has a crackling freshness and energy, and though the subplot with his new trophy wife (Lucy Punch, from Hot Fuzz) is a little broad, it's still enjoyable.
But Allen's script has huge issues with follow-through--after their first, flirtatious lunch, Dia tells Roy to "look out your window at midnight," but we never find out if he did, and what he saw--and several scenes fizzle out or go nowhere in particular. There's a three-scene with Watts, Jones, and Brolin late in the film, when Jones shows up and starts ruffling feathers just as the couple is at their wit's end, which is set up as a comic boiling point, and shot with the energy of one (Vilmos Zsigmond's camerawork is smooth and appealing throughout the film). But the jokes aren't there, and the ones that are just don't land.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is light and likable, but it's an oddly flat affair. The laugh lines are few and far enough between to indicate that Allen might not even be going for comedy--which is certainly his prerogative. Trouble is, the film doesn't have the motor of compelling drama, either. When he arrives at another of his ambiguous, incomplete endings, the loose ends are less bothersome this time around, considering our minimal investments in the characters. It's too bad; he gathered up the expected stellar cast, and all of them do their level best with the material. But this is Allen's wobbliest picture in years.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.