You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger Movie Review

Featuring: Anthony Hopkins, Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin, Gemma Jones, Pauline Collins, Lucy Punch, Frieda Pinto, Antonio Banderas
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Perth release date: Thursday 17th January
Reviewer: Karen (one-word verdict: forgettable)

Two married couples, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) and Helena (Gemma Jones), and their daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) and husband Roy (Josh Brolin), come unstuck as mid-life crises, various anxieties and biological urges wreak havoc. Helena finds a guru in a charlatan fortune teller when, in hopeless pursuit of his lost youth, Alfie leaves her for tacky but free-spirited call girl Charmaine (Lucy Punch). Frustrated with novelist Roy’s lack of career success and unwillingness to take on parenthood, Sally falls for her handsome art gallery owner boss, Greg (Antonio Banderas). Roy, nervously awaiting his publisher’s response to his latest manuscript, spies on the gorgeous Dia (Freida Pinto), who lives in an apartment opposite, until a real-life encounter with her breathes life into his voyeuristic fantasies.

This film was made in 2010; two subsequently-made Woody Allen films have beaten it to release here. I imagine there’s a dedicated band of Woody fans who would not miss seeing You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, but had it not been for the success of Midnight in Paris, they might have been heading to the DVD rental store to do so. You’d get value for money in a bulk deal there, but if you had to fork over double-digit dollars in a cinema to see this trite, lazy effort from a supposed master, you might well be miffed.

The film is standard Woody Allen fare examining foibles of human nature, in this case delusion. But it feels like he is just going through the motions here. Truthfully, I struggled to stay awake, and asked myself whether, if anyone other than the Woodster himself had presented this pedestrian script, they would have got finance. And serious money would be needed to employ the talented team who put together this polished product.

The craftspeople and actors are at least, competent, and at best, wasted in the service of this boring shallow tale about boring self-absorbed people.

Now you know I’m not a fan of Woody Allen’s films, but I didn’t dismiss this one out of hand. I like Naomi Watts – and she’s good in this – and I wanted to like the entire film. At the very least I was prepared to laugh. But the film isn’t funny enough to be classified as a comedy, and it’s not serious enough for drama, and it’s not credible enough to be taken seriously at all.

The storylines are ridiculous and the characterisations that give rise to them are lazy and clichéd. It might be understandable that a wealthy middle-aged man (Anthony Hopkins) might leave his wife (Gemma Jones) for a younger woman (Lucy Punch), but that this younger woman is a hooker, and a particularly declassee one at that, is beyond belief.

And does his wife – whose friends help her out by employing her as a fashion consultant because she supposedly has a flair! – have to be so frumpy? The major theme is about how people delude themselves, but while it is credible that a dumped elderly wife might fall prey to a charlatan fortune teller (Pauline Collins), the rest of this character is mere caricature. The idea of the utterly unchic, unmade-up, well-bred wealthy British matron is undoubtedly fascinating to Woody, but he has not captured her here.

Allen’s stylistic tic of voice-over narration adds nothing to the script, and is often redundant, describing things that we can clearly see or infer for ourselves. It feels like a self-conscious device, reminding us that films are stories. Well, duh, I don’t think I’m alone in being aware of that already. But I suspect that using this device, which is handy for exposition if you don’t want to write scenes and dialogue that include info the audience needs to know, may lead the scriptwriter down the path of not bothering with well-thought-out character development at all. Without the narrator (and who is he, anyway?), Allen would be forced to come up with the goods, scriptwise. (As would any aspiring film writer who presented this work to a professional script editor.)

There’s a curious parallel in the film as the writer, Roy (Josh Brolin, looking very cast against type, and in ill-fitting pants), fails to come up with the goods for his second novel. His relegation to one-hit-wonder status looks like destroying his self-esteem, but he finds not one, but two ways out. In a horrible reminder, for me, of that woeful turkey, The Words, he purloins his friend’s improbably secret, complete, and excellent novel and presents it as his own to his thrilled and credulous publisher; and also, natch, he pursues a muse, the radiant Dia (Frieda Pinto), who looks lovely and does little. Well, she’s a muse – all she has to do is look lovely, right? Actually, she also, improbably, leaves a perfectly acceptable and presumably employed fiancé to run away with Roy.

So, Roy’s deluded, about his talent, and about his chances of getting away with the scam; and Dia’s deluded by his charm. Alfie is deluded by the thought that he can maintain his youth by hooking up with Charmaine, and Helena is deluded by a fortune teller about all manner of things. All these delusions are set up to come crashing down.

The least believable storyline is Sally’s. Sally (Naomi Watts), the daughter of Alfie and Helena, and married to Roy, is emerging, perhaps, from an earlier delusion that Roy would ever man up and willingly become a parent with her. But her belief that she might find romance with her handsome new boss Greg (Antonio Banderas) is hardly delusional given the situations we witness; his denial later that he sees her as anything other than a colleague and employee is disingenuous. Her belief that her mother would stump up the cash for her business venture is not fantastical either, since Helena has been subsidising their rent, and they have previously discussed and agreed on a further loan.

I’d be tempted to conclude that Woody Allen is deluding himself that he’s still got it, but Midnight in Paris shows his mojo can still work. But not on this film.

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2 thoughts on “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger Movie Review”

  1. Have taken a while to get on to commenting on this one, Karen – probably largely because I didn’t see much point. We are never gonna agree on Woody, and arguing our cases with each other seems futile. Despite your claims to be open to enjoying Stranger, I say, based on your review, that your anti-Woody bias renders any real critical objectivity impossible.

    Let me insert a disclaimer of my own at this point: I don’t rate this movie as anything special. It’s slight, and certainly one of Woody’s minor films. But to slag it off as unmercifully as you have here is unbalanced and unfair in my opinion. I found it reasonably enjoyable, and sat there with a smile through most of it. Sure, it wasn’t hilarious, but I don’t think he was going for a laugh a second.

    Apart from your bias against Woody and my generally positive reception of a lot of his stuff, I think there is a hugely significant difference in the way we viewed the film that goes some way to explaining our respective assessments. Going by your review, you held the film up against a set of realist criteria, which I think is completely invalid. Did it not occur to you that this is basically a comedy of manners?

    You complain that the storylines are ridiculous, and cite by way of example the Anthony Hopkins mid-life crisis character leaving his wife not just for a younger woman but for “a hooker, and a particularly declassee one at that”, which you saw as “beyond belief”. To which I say, of course it’s beyond belief (well, almost, heh heh) – as is in keeping with the genre Woody is working in here! We’re in the realm of caricature and farce. And poor ol’ Hopkins’ new wife is supposed to be over-the-top! Lucy Punch delights in hamming it up in her role and having fun with her character, and I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed her performance.

    If you’re going to apply a realist brand of credibility as a criteria of assessment, why do you then protest that Hopkins’ wife is “so frumpy”? Many, many women of her age look like her! And her supposed “flair for fashion” is surely just an instance of irony in a script that is full of it. It’s not subtle, it’s sure as hell not Oscar Wilde, but again, it is appropriate to the genre. And as you point out, she’s a stereotype. Again, part and parcel of the genre. The audience is meant to recognise the characters that are being lampooned as lifted from life, and as the playthings of the writer (and performers). And of course, the play is not without cruelty.

    To head off any counter-charges of gender bias, I meekly submit that the Hopkins character is meted out just as unkind a treatment as his frumpy wife. In fact, he cuts a far more ridiculous figure.

    Re the narrator. I really don’t think his function was to remind us that we’re watching fiction. This is a very obviously theatrical piece. No reminders necessary. Besides, however much you dislike Woody, I suggest he’s way past that sort of ham-fisted and oh-so-tired meta-crap. You may be right about his using the narrator to short-cut characterisation and ‘natural’ exposition, but it didn’t bother me. I enjoyed the wry tone of Mr Narrator.

    And why on earth does it matter who he is? The anonymous narrator is a well-worn device. Can’t we just accept that here? If not, why not?

    Quite right that Dia (Frieda Pinto) “looks lovely and does little” – Woody always throws in some eye candy for the boys, and I for one am not complaining about that! What’s wrong with camera-lingering aesthetic appreciation of gorgeous females – my oh my, is Frieda that, or WHAT! She can be my insubstantial muse any ol’ time she likes.

    And yeah, it’s not very credible that she’d fall for a dickhead like Roy (doesn’t matter, I say, for reasons of genre already covered) – but we don’t learn enough about her fiance to make any judgement over whether he was “perfectly acceptable.” Seems to me this is an instance of your looking for fault where none exists! Why do you beat up on poor old Woody so?

    No need for me to tackle the question of cred you raise over Naomi Watts’ character’s storyline – you know the tack I’ll take. I will say, though, that I take your point about her boss denying any romantic interest in her being disingenuous. Or was he just being a bastard – this is a Woody script, after all! 🙂

    And speaking of disingenuousness, did you really struggle to stay awake? Seems to me you managed to scrutinise the entire work with an intense evil eye!

    I think our divergent takes on this flick perfectly exemplify the importance of factoring genre into a viewing and assessment. Judged against realist criteria it’s crap. As an American trying his hand at an English comedy-of-manners, though, I reckon Woody’s done alright here. But when it comes down to it, I tend to identify with Woody’s world view and like his stuff stylistically most of the time; I think it’s fair on the balance of evidence to say that you don’t! And that, as they say, is that!


  2. Thanks for taking the time to answer, although we’ll agree to disagree.

    Just a couple of points: simple comedy or comedy of manners, it just wasn’t funny enough. And yes, I really did struggle to stay awake!


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