24 Lies A Second: You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger

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A Stranger's Ragged Edge

I think we sometimes underestimate the influence of context on how others perceive us. To landlady I expect I appear as a quiet, affable, accommodating type, while to my students I suspect I am a more challenging and unusual figure. To the staff of the local art house cinema, however, if I am anything at all, I am that bloke who only seems to go to see Woody Allen movies. Much as I like the place and its ambience (the gents' lavatory door is marked only by a striking life-size painting of Toshiro Mifune from Yojimbo, for instance) I've only got down there twice, on both occasions to see something of Allen's.

This is not because I am a particular fan of Woody Allen's work. It is rather that I only go there when absolutely nothing piques my interest at the mainstream multiplexes, and – this may be a coincidence, but may not – these quiet times seem to be when Allen's work gets released these days. It certainly doesn't show up in the major chains, anyway. The first time I trotted along to the art house it was to see last summer's Whatever Works (which certainly didn't). This time it was for his latest movie, touted as a return to form and entitled You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger.

To be perfectly honest, the movie this reminded me of most was Eugene Lourie's classic 1961 offering Gorgo, in which avaricious chancers capture a giant sea monster and put it on display in the centre of a major city, only for disaster to ensue when the monster's humungous mother shows up to rescue it. All You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger shares in terms of its plot is the setting, which is London: but in both cases the style and sensibility of a film usually set elsewhere (in Gorgo's case, Tokyo; in You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger's, New York) has been transplanted to the city, with results which seem inexplicably peculiar.

The general consensus is that Allen isn't the film-maker he was thirty or even twenty years ago, but his ability to attract impressive performers to his films is undiminished. In this one, for example, people like Ewen Bremner, Philip Glenister, Meera Syal and Anna Friel all turn up in minor roles, which is more than a little startling. Further up the cast things are even more glittery.

This is another of Allen's stories of the complicated personal lives of affluent metropolitan types, based around an older couple (Anthony Hopkins and Gemma Jones) and their daughter and son-in-law (Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin). Hopkins has a (slightly late) mid-life crisis and divorces Jones, eventually marrying a prostitute (Lucy Punch). Distraught (and tending towards alcoholism), Jones is encouraged to seek solace in visiting a fortune-teller (Pauline Collins) by Watts. Watts is contending with a growing attraction to her art-dealer boss (Antonio Banderas), her desire to be financially secure and start a family, and her useless husband. Brolin is a struggling writer trying to sell a book but increasingly besotted with a woman (Frieda Pinto) whose apartment he can see into.

All these threads amble along inoffensively enough for the most part (though the stuff with Brolin essentially letching at Pinto getting changed, with which she seems perfectly okay, felt a bit icky) – as I said, it's the same sort of affluent-lives-in-crisis material which has powered many of Allen's other films. It's very clearly not set in a version of London remotely resembling our own: this is a film so far detached from reality that a minor but pivotal character can be called Henry Strangler without it seeming at all weird.

It doesn't seem to be going anywhere special for much of its running time: Hopkins's thread is probably the best, Watts' the least involving. There are some odd choices of what to show on-screen: 'Sally decided her marriage was over and asked Roy for a divorce,' says the chirpy (American) narrator at one point – that's the kind of scene most films would feel it worthwhile to include, but not here.

But then – and this completely threw me at the time – something really odd happens. (Spoilers follow, so be warned.) Hopkins discovers Punch has been unfaithful to him and the child she's carrying may not be his. Brolin, who's stolen a brilliant manuscript written by a friend he believed to be dead, learns his friend is in fact only in a coma and may recover, which would be catastrophically bad news for him. And having encouraged her mother's mystical beliefs as a way of keeping her happy and occupied, when Watts asks her for a loan to help her start her own business she is refused on the grounds the psychic says it would end badly. Genuine tension and raw emotion appear for the first time in the movie – which then abruptly ends, none of these things resolved, the final scene being given to Jones's character, who's the only happy one, being on the verge of marrying an occult bookstore owner.

I couldn't figure out why Woody would make an hour and a half of faff – which is what the majority of You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger is – and cram all the interesting stuff into the last ten minutes without following any of it to a conclusion. However, I believe I have figured out what his intention was: this movie is supposed to be about the fact that happiness sometimes walks hand-in-hand with delusion, and it's supposed to be blackly ironic that Jones's mysticism has made her happy while all the others' more 'realistic' view of the world has caused them nothing but pain.

Except the execution of the idea kills it. This would only work if Jones was mocked and scorned throughout the film and the others were presented as likeable, successful people in comparison. But they're not. Beneath the mild and easy-going exterior this is a rather misanthropic film (even moreso, misogynistic: the presentation of Lucy Punch's character is particularly uncomfortable), and no-one comes across particularly positively. You know Hopkins is heading for a fall from the moment you meet his new bride, and Brolin's character is just an unpleasant loser throughout. It's not a sudden reversal when they end up in a bad place. Watts's character is decent enough, but she never convinces: the fact it's a British character written by an American and played by an Australian may have something to do with this. Allen's point is still there, just about: but you really have to strain to see it and it doesn't really have much impact once you discern it.

Most of the cast is effective enough, Hopkins particularly so, and there are lots of mildly amusing bits along the way. It's certainly not as thorough-goingly awful as Whatever Works was: but the basic fact is that this is a movie which had an interesting idea at its heart, the execution of which has basically been bungled. And that's just rather frustrating. If nothing else, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger shows that Woody Allen hasn't completely lost his edge: it just seems, sadly, that he can't seem to find a way to employ it effectively any more.

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