Seventy-four-year-old writer-director Woody Allen is nothing if not prolific. He has delivered a movie a year like clockwork for decades — something like 40 movies in four decades — and his batting average of real quality as opposed to mere water treading is astoundingly, admirably high.
But there’s no getting around the cautionary message for potential viewers of his latest, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger: you will see a small, bad movie.
Like a lot of Allen’s comedies, the lackluster ensemble comedy You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger involves discontent and malcontent characters for whom the grass is greener until they actually cross over to that proverbial other side.
Two unhappily married couples are the focus of the narrative’s interlocking subplots, which are spelled out for us by an unseen narrator.
Josh Brolin is an American author living in London, obsessed with attractive neighbor Freida Pinto while he struggles unsuccessfully to get his second novel published.
Naomi Watts (above right), playing his British wife, has a crush on her boss, an art gallery owner played by Antonio Banderas.
Meanwhile, Watts’ father, played by Anthony Hopkins (above left), has left his wife and taken up with a Cockney hooker (Lucy Punch) while his wife (Gemma Jones) seeks comfort from the bottle and the advice of a silver-lining-finding psychic (Pauline Collins).
For all their complaints about their loved ones and yearnings for the company of others, these deluded, disenchanted, and dissatisfied characters seeking lasting happiness — and not being careful about what they wish for — are also at least subconsciously affected by their knowledge that they live at the intersection of morality and mortality, and that nearby is that other tall, dark stranger: a fellow by the name of Death.
Woody Allen’s screenplays (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and her Sisters, Vicki Cristina Barcelona, Match Point) continue to have their moments, but because his writing at this stage is not as sharp as it once was, it’s critical that he be willing to edit more aggressively than ever.
Yet that’s just not the case here: the chilly and uninspired You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger screams out for rewrites and reshoots and gets no response, far too often seeming like a collection of disparate ideas crammed into the same meandering mishmash of a movie made at half-mast.
Allen’s choice of actors is questionable, first of all. Take the key trio of Brolin, Watts, and Hopkins: they’re accomplished talents all, but not one of them has a knack for comedy. That’s part of the reason why there are so many awkward on-screen moments and why the characters — and the movie — get on your nerves long before they should.
Usually, Allen’s memorable one-liners make up for such sins, but the laughs just aren’t there this time.
Our familiarity with Allen’s earlier movies makes the material addressed and fleshed out in this one seem comfortingly familiar early on and therefore better than it is for much of the running time.
But we wait and wait for the exposition to mount up and lead somewhere and the rollicking humor to kick in, and it never does. Did he avoid or remove jokes on purpose?
As the final reels roll by, and the joylessness becomes oppressive, we realize that the narrative really isn’t going anywhere and will not make any kind of contribution to the mountain of movie memories that Allen’s dozens of valuable films have afforded us.
So we’ll divorce 2 stars out of 4 for a not-even-middling marital comedy. In the chronological Woody Allen canon, what does You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger follow? Whatever Works.
For the record, this one doesn’t.