Toronto: Antonio Banderas and Naomi Watts in Allen's charming, slight 'Tall Dark Stranger'
When you make a film a year, rain or shine, you'll end with some good movies just as a matter of general talent. Woody Allen certainly knows how to make an engaging, easy sit at this point, and "You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger" is certainly painless. To some extent, though, Allen's films are as familiar in their rhythms as the superhero origin story, and so it becomes about watching variations on a theme, watching how each different cast tackles the material. You're either up for the familiar pleasures or you're not, and by now, I think most serious filmgoers know how they feel about Allen's work.
Let's say this was the very first time you're seeing a Woody Allen film, though. I think sometimes we forget that's even possible. But I know that the first Allen film I saw in a theater and not on home video was "Hannah and Her Sisters." I would imagine this could well be someone's very first Woody Allen film. It's the story of Helena (Gemma Jones), an older woman whose husband Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) has just left her. She's ruined, and her daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) sends her to a psychic named Cristal (Pauline Colins), knowing it will comfort her. Sally and her husband Roy (Josh Brolin) are in a holding pattern while they wait for him to finish his novel, something that terrifies him. He spends his days watching a lovely young neighbor named Dia (Frieda Pinto) through her window, running from his work, while Sally spends her work days lusting quietly after Greg (Antonio Banderas), the owner of the gallery where she works. Meanwhile, Sally's father Alfie is dealing with the ridiculous folly of his relationship with his mistress Charmaine (Lucy Punch). It's typical Allen romantic roundelay, and there's a spirited energy to it this time around, but it doesn't add up to much. If this were my very first Allen film, my reaction would be, "That's it?"
As a longtime Allen fan, though, there are particular pleasures here. Brolin's pursuit of the oh-so-lovely Pinto is interesting, and Brolin in general is one of the more interestingly amoral figures in the film. Allen drops a great opportunity in Brolin's hands to do something terrible, and it's really clever the way Allen plays out that particular thread. The potential for romance for Helena is handled well, too, and the sweetness of it is indicative of the overall tone of the film. Even Alfie's storyline with his trashy English mistress is sweet because of the expert way Lucy Punch plays Charmaine as a creature of whim. She's not malicious. She's not trying to hurt Alfie or exploit him. He drops into her life and wants to please her, and she's more than happy to be pleased. Naomi Watts flounders, though, and it's the material's problem. She's given nothing to do.
Technically, it looks and sounds like… well… every other Woody Allen film of the last ten years. I like the use of the London locations. It's been interesting to watch Allen move out of New York gradually over the last handful of years. Even if I think "You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger" is a little on the inconsequential side, I'm always happy to check out a new Allen film. It was just a few years ago that he made "Vicki Christina Barcelona," which I adore, so I know there's always hope that the next one will be the home run. And in the meantime, a solid double will do just fine.
"You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger" opens this Wednesday.
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