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CANNES — The grass is always greener in “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” Woody Allen’s roundelay of perplexed characters chasing illusions rather than reality. As a film from Allen’s ongoing British/European period, where he spins out comic trifles or morality plays that drift seemingly free of national context, the comedy is more amusing than most, though it lacks the vibrant spirit of “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” This is Woody in a bemused mood, devilishly complicating his characters’ lives with follies and foibles of their own making until he ties each protagonist into a comic pretzel. Then he takes a tea break.
Its Cannes launch can only help “Stranger” in those European territories where his films tend to find receptive audiences. Back home, the film will do modest business along the lines of most of his comedies.
The film’s multiple London-based stories all concern characters seeking shortcuts to happiness. Each one thinks that if only X will happen, then I can live happily ever after. But even if that were true, no one has any patience: Each is determined to grab X right away. Naturally, a fake fortune-teller — isn’t that a redundancy? — gets involved.
Anthony Hopkins’ Alfie — perhaps a wink and a nod to Michael Caine’s ’60s-era sexual predator — awakens one morning to discover that he’s old and married to a wife, Helena (Gemma Jones), of the same age. So he bolts married life for a regimen of strenuous workouts and bachelor quarters. When this doesn’t swiftly restore his youth, he decides to marry a call girl, Charmaine (Lucy Punch), in hopes she will give him a son.
The couple’s grown daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) sends her mother to a charlatan fortune-teller (Pauline Collins) just to keep her mom from thoughts of suicide. The fortune-teller promises her she’ll meet “a stranger.” And indeed she does in a recent widower (Roger Ashton-Griffiths) who believes in spiritualism.
Meanwhile, Sally’s brooding novelist husband, Roy (Josh Brolin), appears washed-out after a “promising” first novel. While awaiting word from a publisher on his latest manuscript, Roy spends his days gazing longingly at a new and beautiful neighbor in the next building. When he contrives to meet her, Dia (“Slumdog Millionaire’s” Freida Pinto) is so charming he falls madly in love. But she’s already engaged.
With her husband unwilling to commit to raising a family, Sally takes a job in an art gallery, where she develops a crush on her boss, Greg (Antonio Banderas). But she can’t tell if Greg, who has his own matrimonial miseries, shares her feelings.
Spouses feel so disposable in this movie. But be careful what you wish for, Allen seems to say. For instance, Dia does return Roy’s ardor, but what does he have to offer her when his marriage crumbles and the publisher rejects his novel?
But wait, a miracle appears to Roy: A friend dies in a car crash and Roy may just have the only copy of the friend’s dynamite new novel that no one else has seen! This is so much easier than having to sit down and write another damn book.
Not too surprisingly, though, hookers don’t necessarily make ideal second wives, nor does the woman next door. Indeed the film’s best visual image is seeing Roy, newly moved into Dia’s flat, gazing back across the building separation at his ex-wife across the way. The illusions have switched places!
There’s not much more to the movie than this, however. Its writer-director mines a few good laughs from these situations along with more awkward moments where he forces issues or characters behave inconsistently.
Since he has moved more or less permanently behind the camera and no longer acts in his films, Allen plays God with his characters much more. They feel more like puppets rather than human beings with natural instincts and lucid senses.
True, the stories here are about people acting irrationally. But you always understood the emotions behind bad behavior in “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan” and “Hannah and Her Sisters.” Here decisions get made off-camera or people act with an abruptness, if not a frivolity, that betrays no thought process at all.
Alfie suffers nary a thought over the family he devastated. Sally never wonders why she even wants to have babies with a selfish lout. Everyone is single-minded and obsessive to the point a viewer can all but predict lines and attitudes before a scene begins.
Jones stands apart perhaps because hers is the only character that actually changes over the course of the movie. Hopkins never finds the key to his character’s past-middle-age crisis. Brolin, Watts and Punch all have one-note characters. Banderas is hardly in the movie and, like Pinto, seems cast for smoldering dark looks.
The movie ends just when complications start to set in, which makes you wonder how invested Allen really is in the little melodramas within this comedy.
Venue: Festival de Cannes — Out of Competition
Sony Pictures Classics
Sales: Imagina International Sales
Production companies: Mediapro, Versatil Cinema & Gravier Productions present in association with Antena 3 Films & Antena 3 TV a Dippermouth production
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins, Gemma Jones, Frieda Pinto, Lucy Punch, Naomi Watts
Director/screenwriter: Woody Allen
Producers: Letty Aronson, Jaume Roures, Stephen Tenenbaum
Executive producer: Javier Mendez
Director of photography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Production designer: Jim Clay
Costume designer: Beatrix Aruna Pasztor
Editor: Alisa Lepselter
No rating, 98 minutes
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