Woody Allen makes a movie a year and, because his themes repeat, the films tend to run together. His latest, “You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger,” set in London, echoes the good and the not-so-good from “Crimes and Misdemeanors” to “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” and “Cassandra’s Dream.” It’s a middling entry in the canon – a serious comedy about the superior benefits of living a life based on delusion.
Helena (Gemma Jones) has lately been seeking out a perpetually upbeat psychic (Pauline Collins) after being abandoned by her husband, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), who has fallen for a slinky call girl, Charmaine (Lucy Punch), more than half his age. Helena and Alfie’s daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts), wants to start a family and open her own art gallery but grudgingly supports her husband, Roy (Josh Brolin), who, after a promising first novel, is floundering on a new one. Easily distracted, his roving eye takes in a beautiful guitar-playing neighbor, Dia (Freida Pinto), with whom he strikes up a dalliance that quickly heats up. Sally, meanwhile, has flirtatious designs on her unhappily married boss (Antonio Banderas).
Each of the central characters, in his or her own way, is deeply deluded: Helena with her soothsayer, Alfie with his chippy, Roy with his dreams of literary glory, Sally with her boss. But only Helena remains steadfastly in the thrall of misbelief and she is the only one who is happy. The others eventually have to reckon with reality.
Is Allen here being an optimist or a pessimist? (The opening credits are backed on the soundtrack by “When You Wish Upon A Star.”) On a vastly simplified scale, this is the same cosmic agenda that Eugene O’Neill worked up in “The Iceman Cometh,” where the barflies, jolted out of their delusions by life’s sordid realities, are finally enfolded in the comforts of denial. You couldn’t help feeling happy for them in the end even though you knew their happiness was based on a lie.
Something similar is at work in Allen’s movie. Helena, the sweet-souled loon, is at peace, while the realists around her are raging. It’s a sick joke, but, for Allen, the joke may be on the realists.
This probably sounds like a thesis film, and, at times, it is too schematic for its own good. The characters pair off and break up and come together and it’s all a bit too carefully calibrated. But Allen has too much affection for his characters to be a scold or a messagemonger. He is, above all, bemused by their ability, in their pursuit of happiness, to twist their lives into a Gordian knot of complication.
Some of the confabs work better than others. The Sally-Roy sequences are necessarily repetitive but they wear themselves out. The Roy-Dia scenes feel generic. This sameness would seemingly also apply to the Alfie-Charmaine scenes – who cares about another rich old guy bamboozled by a gold digger? – except that Hopkins, not usually noted for comedy, gives a marvelous, dry rendering, and the aptly named Punch does very well by her not-so-dumb dumb blonde.
It’s been a long time since Allen directed a movie with any real overall staying power. What you’re left with instead are sequences, moments, bits of business. “You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger,” like so much of Allen’s work over the past several decades, has a marking-time quality. But there’s a difference between marking time and wasting time. There are enough pleasantries and good jests in this new film to make a meal. And, unless I, too, have joined the ranks of the deluded, I don’t believe its mite of seriousness is misplaced. Grade: B (Rated R for some language.)