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Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2010

Tall Dark Stranger

Best-laid plans go awry in latest romantic comedy

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Leon Redbone is heard as the stark black-and-white opening credits roll, singing “When You Wish Upon a Star” with raspy endearment. That Woody Allen’s latest blend of sweetness and cynicism, You Will Meet a TallDark Stranger, starts on an ironic note is hardly a surprise. In case anyone misses the point of his thorny romantic comedy, the movie’s recurring narrator quickly adds a Shakespearean quote—the one about life being all sound and fury signifying nothing.

The significance of the tangled emotional and sexual relationships of Tall Dark Stranger seems to be that everyone’s dreams and best-laid plans run aground against a reality of incalculable variables and complications. Ardor of all sorts tends to cool down, especially when the self-calculations and emotional maladies of our lovers reveal themselves—as they eventually will do.

London has been a tonic for Allen during the past decade, a setting that lifted him out of the mental rut of Manhattan. Beautifully shot against the backdrop of the city on the Thames, Tall Dark Stranger concerns an interlocking set of couples at the corner where posh meets bohemian. We meet Helena (Gemma Jones) as she steps out of a big black taxi on her way to the psychic she comes to depend on for counsel. The psychic may be phony, but she is a keen observer of the human condition and, besides, pours whiskey while proffering advice. “It’s far less expensive than those fancy psychiatrists I’ve been seeing,” Helena explains, “and those horrible medications!” Whiskey is a more pleasant emotional anesthetic than Prozac and the insights of a fortuneteller and a Freudian have a similar hold on truth. The cause of Helena’s pain is the decision of her ex-husband, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), to end their long marriage. In the madness of a late-life crisis, he left his wife, moved to a swank bachelor pad and bought a sports car. Still, the beautiful young women he desires never turn up—until he pays a failed actress-turned-call-girl, a Cockney tart called Charmaine (Lucy Punch). Besotted by her sexuality, Alfie proposes marriage. She eagerly accepts, seeing the wealthy old fool as her ticket to the high life.

Meanwhile, Helena is supporting her angry, idiotic son-in-law, the struggling novelist Roy (Josh Brolin), and her increasingly frustrated daughter Sally (Naomi Watts in a spot-on performance as a Brit). Sally finds work as a personal assistant to the handsome director of a distinguished art gallery (Antonio Banderas) and begins to fall under the spell of his melancholy charm. And as this happens, Roy recreates Rear Window by becoming infatuated with the dark and exotic beauty (Freida Pinto) he sees through the window of the apartment across the narrow street. Another quote from Shakespeare comes to mind, although Allen’s narrator never cites it: “What fools these mortals be.” The happiest characters in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger are the ones who find a pleasant delusion to sustain them. Wishing upon a star might not be such a silly idea, after all.
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