Movie review: Woody Allen has introduced a ‘Stranger’ worth meeting

Dana Barbuto

"You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” is another familiar (not totally stale) and neurotic grass-is-always-greener fable from writer-director Woody Allen.

Set in London, (though location isn’t really a factor here, like in past Allen flicks) it’s an A-list ensemble serio-comedy featuring Antonio Banderas, Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins, Gemma Jones, Freida Pinto, Lucy Punch and Naomi Watts.

Allen marries irony and truth as he yet again explores human weaknesses. The Oscar-winning director, who is almost 75, takes on themes of aging, mortality, fidelity and the despondence of life. But it’s not as grim as it sounds. Allen’s script has plenty of comic elements to offset his characters’ woefulness.

The film opens with Allen in voiceover reciting the life-is-meaningless-and-trivial soliloquy from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing ...”

The title has double meaning, it’s a play on a classic fortune teller’s prediction and also on our ultimate fate – death – as the tall and dark grim reaper will surely get us all in the end. It doesn’t matter if we divorce our old spouse and marry younger and it doesn’t matter if we eat well and exercise frequently, we all still get old and die.

By no means is this groundbreaking stuff, but Allen’s movie is a fun little morality tale that is kept afloat by its solid cast. The plot is typical of Allen’s canon – a tormented writer, philandering spouses and older guys creeping on women half their ages. Roy (Brolin) is a one-book wonder novelist out to prove he’s no flash in the pan. He is married (boringly) to Sally (Watts) who either wants to get pregnant or have an affair with her art-dealer boss (Banderas); he (Roy) takes up with his fetching neighbor Dia (Pinto). Meanwhile Sally’s slightly eccentric mother Helena (Gemma Jones) and father Alfie (Hopkins) divorce after 40 years of marriage. Alfie soon beds hooker-turned-bride Charmaine – Lucy Punch doing the nutty tart thing from “Dinner With Schmucks.” In an effort to soothe herself, Helena seeks consolation from a charlatan fortuneteller whose predictions become her life’s gospel.

The matrimonial woes and subsequent histrionics between Roy and Sally are the film’s least interesting element. She wants a baby, he doesn’t. He’s a jerk; she’s a shrew. Listening to them rattle on is grating.

The film’s best bits come from its steely veterans – Hopkins and Jones. Whenever she’s looking for a spot to drink (and I don’t mean tea) or he’s popping a Viagra (yup, Hannibal Lecter takes sex pills) the film comes to life. Jones is a master of the nuanced insult, usually slung in the direction of Brolin, playing her deadbeat son-in-law. Hopkins does the cuckholded old fool bit like a champ. Neither of these roles is a challenge for actors of this caliber, but they’re still fun to watch.

The ending leaves stuff unresolved, which might not sit well for those who like their plot strings tied up and matched with a bow. However, the ambiguity works, because, like life, nothing is black and white. We live in the shades of gray.

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YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER (R for some language.) Cast includes Antonio Banderas, Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins, Gemma Jones, Freida Pinto, Lucy Punch and Naomi Watts. Written and directed by Woody Allen. 3 stars out of 4.