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Non-Review Review: You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger is – we’re told at the start by the (now seemingly customary) narrator – “a tale told by an idiot, filled with sound and fury, signifying nothing.” It doesn’t use the exact quote from Macbeth, but it references it pretty explicitly. However, this seems less like the genuine intention of Woody Allen and more like an excuse scribbled on the introduction to a term paper he couldn’t be bothered finishing, as if to declare to the world, “It’s okay if nothing is ever really resolved or developed and random stuff seems to occur for no reason – that’s the stylistic approach I’m adopting!” I don’t doubt that the movie’s inconclusive nature is undoubtedly intentional, but it’s inconsistency is still infuriating – perhaps more for the sections of the movie that do engage rather than those that meander. It’s not necessary a bad film – Allen is still a great storyteller, even when he doesn’t seem especially bothered – but it’s just not up there with Vicki Cristina Barcelona or even Match Point.

Growing old disgracefully...

The movie is essentially an ensemble piece with a hugely impressive cast gathered by Allen. It deals with an unhappily married couple, the wife’s divorced parents, and draws in the owner of a local gallery and a beautiful neighbour as well. These lives intercept one another in a variety of interesting ways, and Allen seems to pretty much passively document the collisions and interceptions, like marbles moving randomly across a floor. The uniting theme is, as the title suggests, the faith that some put in new age philosophies – or, more accurately, how easy it is to believe the illusion rather than accept the fact. If we can trick ourselves into believing a comforting lie, won’t that make us happier people in the end?

The husband in the marriage, Roy, is a writer. He had one big hit and has been trying to live up to his predicted talent. He’s poured his heart and soul into his manuscript before sending it off to the publishers. However, their verdict is somewhat damning. There are, they tell him, great bits scattered throughout the work, but it never really comes together. It seems that Allen himself is aware of the weaknesses in this production, as the criticism holds true for the film itself. There are some fantastic bits scattered throughout the film, but they’re too far between and never really able to come together to form a cohesive whole.

Not the best of Allen's art...

Ensemble dramas are a tough genre to balance. Very simply, you need to ensure that all the many threads are at least as interesting as each other – there is absolutely no point, for example, in having your audience “miss” particular actors while they are off-screen, rather than engaging with the characters currently present. It’s a fine line to walk, as an especially strong storyline might seem excessively compressed as it’s forced to compete for space with the weaker elements, which end up seeming padded despite the limited time they get.

In this movie, the one plot thread which consistently works and interests the audience, is that following Alfie Shebritch. A man in his seventies, Alfie is refusing to accept his age. “I’ve got longevity in my genes,” he repeatedly protests as he does a few extra push-ups and lifts a few more weights. Following the death of his young son, Alfie is refusing to rest until he can produce a suitable heir – apparently his daughter isn’t quite enough, as they only interact rarely during the drama. Alfie proceeds to hook up with an “actress” half his age, popping Viagra and stalling for time while it kicks into action.

Mother knows best?

This is a wonderful thread, and it’s the one – from the screening I attended – which produced the most laughs. Anthony Hopkins is simultaneously charming and vulnerable as the man who refuses to face his own inevitable mortality by hooking up with a young woman who clearly isn’t compatible with him in any real sense. There’s a lot of brutal honesty in this storyline, and Hopkins manages to make the audience understand Alfie’s insecurities and fears without making him a shallow parody. I would have loved the opportunity to spend more time with dear old Alfie.

Unfortunately the rest of the plots don’t work quite so well. There are separate threads which follow the married couple as they consider having affairs. These are generally awkwardly written scenes, and it doesn’t help that neither Roy nor Sally seem like especially complex characters – we find out that she wants a family, and he doesn’t, but there’s never any indication of how the two of them have stayed together so long, or whether they harbour any affection for each other. Josh Brolin and Naomi Watts do great work, but the material certainly isn’t there.

A walk in the park for Allen...

There is a strange tangent which begins following Roy and his novel, but it feels almost strangely out-of-place in a Woody Allen comedy like this, but rather feels like it might be more at home in one of his thrillers. The strand only emerges in the last third of the film, and it seems as if the movie is about to shift genres into something resembling Cassandra’s Dream. It never really materialises, so I was left scratching my head. The plot thread is inserted into the second half of the film, hinted at and then just left hanging. Which is a bit of a shame, as it was one of the more exciting threads in the story.

It’s not all bad, in fairness – I’m probably being harsh. There are some decent ideas underneath the surface about our capacity for self-delusion, and there are a few great jokes thrown in here and there. Allen does solid dialogue, even if I’m not yet convinced he can write British characters. When Sally says things like “we must be going”, it sounds almost like she has wandered off the set of a BBC period drama – as fun as it is to assume that all well-educated British people talk like that, it leads to the occasional line which feels a little awkward. But, for the most part, his character banter well and they hide kernels of insight within unsuspecting remarks. It works well.

An addition to Allen's impressive body of work...

The ensemble is great, even where the characters don’t manage to work quite so well. In particular, as already mentioned, Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin and Anthony Hopkins do fantastic work. However, there are also relatively small appearances from Anna Friel and Philip Glenister which work well, too. Allen arguably works well with actors, and that’s the movie’s real strength – a solid ensemble who know exactly what they’re doing. It would be nice, however, if the script had a similar idea of what they were up to.

You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger is a perfectly adequate diversion if you enjoy Allen’s more modern output, but it’s not among his best work – even of that body of work he has cultivated over the past decade. One gets the sense that the script appeared to the writer in a form as vague and indistinct as any fortune teller’s prophecies. It’s a little disappointing, but it’s not necessarily bad. There’s a fair amount to enjoy here, it’s just sad there isn’t more to love.

I don’t normally score my reviews, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival does give an “audience award” and asks the audience to rate the film out of four. In the interest of full and frank disclosure, my score is: 3.

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