After taking a break to watch some interesting, thoughtful movies that spin-off and build on Woody Allen’s classics, it’s back to the grind. Being able to make a movie is a dream come true for most directors, but for Woody Allen these days, it’s somewhere between a hobby and a chore. Cassandra’s Dream is a competent film, but depressingly indifferent. It’s the exact opposite of a passion project.
Scoop was an equally lifeless movie, but as I’ve said countless times, Allen is gifted enough that he can get away with sleepwalking through comedy. For something with the dry, depressing content of Cassandra’s Dream, Allen needs to actually make an effort, as he did with Match Point, or else the result is unforgivably dull.
Cassandra’s Dream is Allen’s third straight British movie. This one trades the aristocratic manors and hunting estates of Match Point and Scoop for the dingy flats of working-class, inner-city Londoners. The protagonists are two brothers (Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell, adorned with matching haircuts) who really want to buy a boat for some reason. Ian (McGregor) works at their father’s restaurant, and Terry (Farrell) is a mechanic.
Match Point’s alleged inauthenticity eluded me, but it’s clear as day this time. McGregor and Farrell, I imagine, would be fine for parts like this in better circumstances, but Allen writes their characters the same way he’s written every character in the last five years. It’s sort of ironic how, in the 1980s, Allen could write for anyone, but almost always filled his movies with the same types of people; in the 2000s, his movies’ characters have a wide variety of nationalities, ages and backgrounds, yet he writes them all the same.
The characters’ lack of authenticity could be overlooked if, as in Match Point or, to a lesser degree, Anything Else, they were at least interesting, but that is not the case. There’s not a moment of silence in Cassandra’s Dream, as everyone is constantly talking, yet somehow, they never find time to say anything interesting. Instead of making small-talk or having interesting conversations, the characters in Cassandra’s Dream self-narrate their lives.
Take the opening scene, for example. Ian and Terry are going to look at, and possibly buy, a boat. They jog towards the pier excitedly, saying things like “there it is!” and “what a beaut!” If this was a scene depicting a young child spotting his father in the driveway with a new bike, this would be the appropriate direction, but for two grown men it makes no sense. Don’t you think, maybe, they’d walk like normal human beings and talk about their day, or their lives, or make jokes? It doesn’t get any better when they get down to the dock, and Ian says “don’t act too interested, or he won’t budge on the price” — a seemingly innocuous line, but an example of how the screenplay never trusts us to figure anything out on our own.
So generic are the lead characters that if, half-way through the movie, McGregor had started reading Farrell’s lines and vice versa, I probably wouldn’t have noticed. At least one of them is on screen for nearly the entire film, yet, I can’t describe either of their personalities in any specific terms.
Their performances are as stilted as the dialogue, although I’ve long since stopped blaming actors for bad performances in Woody Allen movies — given the awkward dialogue and the fact that, according to Colin Farrell, they generally did everything in one take, the actors were doomed from the outset. Towards the end of the movie, Terry is supposedly consumed by anguish, which Farrell conveys by wincing, curdling his face up and saying things like “I’m anguished.” McGregor, meanwhile, never even bothers displaying any feeling. It doesn’t feel like they’re acting, it feels like they’re reading us the screenplay.
Also, far be it for me to nit-pick, but the accents of McGregor (who’s Scottish) and Farrell (who’s Irish) are a little suspect. Not that I could necessarily pin-point a precise British dialect, but they awkwardly over-enunciate every word, especially ones like ‘aven’t (haven’t) or guhl (girl) that are particularly English-sounding. They sound, in other words, like people talking with fake accents. I guess when you do everything in one take, there’s not a lot of room for finessing.
Anyway, the story involves the boys’ rich uncle Howard asking them to commit a murder in exchange for a lot of money — money which Ian wants for a business venture, and Terry wants to pay off his gambling debts. Howard is played by Tom Wilkinson, whose performance is easily the best in the film simply by virtue of never being painful or embarrassing. Probably because his character has a real, distinct purpose, and his dialogue is deliberate and direct. The utter lack of character definition makes Ian and Terry boring heroes, but it makes Howard a mysterious villain.
In between planning the murder, Ian starts up a romance with Angela (Hayley Atwell). If there’s one type of character I’m absolutely sick of seeing in Woody Allen movies, it’s the sultry, promiscuous, emotionally manipulative struggling actress. How many of these have we seen, now? A dozen? Angela at least stands out by being the most poorly written incarnation yet. We first see her dramatically tossing her hair back while bent over the hood of a car, an introduction more fitting to a Michael Bay movie.
Angela’s scenes with Ian (McGregor) are utterly embarrassing. These parts seem to have been out-sourced to a writing team consisting of one horny teenager and one freshly sentient robot still struggling to grasp the concept of human sexuality. Ian goes to see her play in which she performs live sex acts and he praises the eroticism of her performance. In that same scene she tells Ian that she had a sexy dream about him and solicits a date from a man while in the middle of a date with another man. All the while, she has a self-conscious, exaggerated “sexy” pout, as if she’s starring in a Zucker brothers-style parody of Basic Instinct.
Once the brothers actually embark on their murderous plan, the movie picks up a little, if only because there’s finally something at stake. To my surprise, I actually found myself caring a little bit about these peculiar, personality-deprived brothers. The same way I sometimes start to wonder what’s going to happen next when I’m in a waiting room and the TV is showing soap operas on mute.
When actually in the throes of murder, the film’s awkwardness suddenly starts to work in its favor. Their first (unsuccessful) attempt involves breaking into their victim’s house and awaiting his arrival, the second (successful) attempt involves ambushing him on the street. The boys’ idiosyncratic behavior makes the scenes of violence more harrowing and unpredictable.
Of course, right before anyone is actually murdered, the camera abruptly turns away. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, keeping the violence off-screen was a deliberate, stylistic choice, but here it just seems arbitrary. The protagonists are committing the crime themselves and they’re supposedly haunted by it, playing it over and over in their head, so why not show it? The film is so lazily written and directed, part of me wonders if Allen just couldn’t be bothered to deal with filming something that would be new for him.
After the murder, we get to watch as characters come to terms with having done something so terrible for the second time in three movies. As expected, they wonder whether or not there is a God; they wonder how to deal with the guilt; they ask themselves if it was worth it; they have nightmares. I defended Match Point for at least offering some variation on the thoughts and themes of Crimes and Misdemeanors, but Cassandra’s Dream brings nothing new to the table.
Terry eventually succumbs to guilt and gives himself into the police, which inspires Ian to murder his brother. In the end, he can’t go through with it. Instead, they have a fist-fight, and Terry accidentally kills Ian and then kills himself as well. This is an intriguing ending, although Allen puts about as much thought into writing and directing it as I put into summarizing it. We see Farrell push McGregor, and then the movie cheaply, insultingly cuts to a police officer who just explains what happens, helpfully sparing Allen the effort of actually filming a crucial, emotional scene.
There are a lot of references to literary works. The title (which is the name of the brothers’ boat, by the way) references Greek mythology. Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov probably factors in somehow. The fact that Howard proposes his plan under a tree apparently has something to do with the Garden of Eden story. But the truth is, the movie’s immediate story is so uninteresting, the subtext and allusions hardly seem worth exploring.
One thing worth noting is that Cassandra’s Dream is the first Woody Allen movie in 25 years to have an original score. (Maybe he left his record collection in New York.) The score is the work of legendary and absurdly overqualified composer Philip Glass. The score is deep and moody and would be effective in a different, better-made thriller. However — and I realize this is likely only an issue for people in my unique predicament — every time Glass’s score came in I was distracted by and keenly aware of it, if only because I’m so unused to hearing ambient music in a Woody Allen movie.
The movie’s cinematography comes courtesy of Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Deer Hunter, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), who is as legendary and overqualified at his own craft as Glass is at his. You’d never know it without glancing at the credits, though — I wouldn’t necessarily be able to differentiate his work here from that of relative unknown Remi Adefarasin, who shot Allen’s other two British films.
Cassandra’s Dream is far from being Allen’s worst movie, but it’s his most frustrating and maybe his most depressing. With Glass, Zsigmond, McGregor, Farrell, Wilkinson and what I still think is a strong story, there’s no reason this shouldn’t be a great movie. Yet Allen seems to be actively working against it, bombarding us with mind-numbing dialogue and half-finished scenes. It seems as though he’s now content to pass off first drafts and rehearsals for a real movie. The wasted potential is almost enough to make you admire The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, which was at least unambiguously misguided from start to finish.
Back when I was writing about Crimes and Misdemeanors, I found myself burdened with the task of doing its brilliance justice. The tables have turned, now — instead of feeling unworthy of Woody Allen’s movies, Woody Allen’s movies increasingly feel unworthy of the time it takes to watch them.
- Like Melinda and Melinda, this movie’s worldwide release spanned a calendar year, which is why it’s sometimes listed as 2007, sometimes as 2008. It played in the Toronto Film Festival and in a few European countries in 2007 but didn’t see general release in the UK or US until 2008.
- The Weinstein Company, presumably thinking they had another Match Point on their hands, originally planned to release it in the fall of 2007 and give it a strong Oscar campaign, but when early reviews were negative and both Colin Farrell or Ewan McGregor were no longer available for publicity, they dumped it unceremoniously into theatres in January 2008 instead. Woody Allen jokingly said “they put the film into a witness protection program.”
- Cassandra’s Dream is Woody Allen’s only movie other than September to gross less than $1 million at the US box office.
- The only Woody Allen movie without a single American actor in the primary cast.
- Allen said he screened the film for his friends and several of them asked him afterwards who Cassandra was. “Cassandra’s Dream” is actually the name of the boat they buy in the beginning, which is the same boat they later die on.
- The restaurant scenes were filmed in Claridges, which is owned by Gordon Ramsay, according to IMDb.
- Amidst the mostly negative reviews, Richard Brody of The New Yorker listed Cassandra’s Dream as one of the best films of the 2000s. Although his list also included Knocked Up and Darjeeling Limited, so take his recommendation cautiously.