As Woody Allen continues to repeat himself, I find it harder and harder to avoid doing the same. What can I possibly say about You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger that I haven’t already said about Scoop, Melinda and Melinda or Anything Else? It’s yet another dated, fitfully amusing comedy-drama with familiar themes, characters and stories.
This is Allen’s fourth movie in London, but the first one that pays its European location no mind. It’s his first London movie that could just as easily have been set in New York, suggesting Allen’s finally getting a bit more comfortable overseas.
The Allen movie that You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger borrows from most heavily is Interiors, and this time, it’s deliberate. Allen claims he conceived this movie as a comic variation on Interiors, and in doing so, managed to also rip off Melinda and Melinda (which was also based on a strained funny/serious dichotomy).
As far as film conceits go, “funny version of Interiors” is about as sound and reasonable as “action movie based on the board game Battleship.” In 1978, people may have wanted Woody Allen to make more funny movies, but I doubt anyone walked out of Interiors thinking “I wonder what that would be like as a comedy.” Besides, the core themes, stories and characters of Interiors have already been revisited by Allen countless times — sometimes comedically. The world did not need a comedy version of Interiors in 1978, and needed one even less in 2010.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger tells the story of half-a-dozen or so Londoners going through emotional crises — almost all of which are caused by, or result in, infidelity (Woody Allen’s all-time favorite topic). One of them has an interest in mysticism and believes in reincarnation, which is appropriate, given that the people in this movie are reincarnations of characters from other Woody Allen movies.
Chief among them is a struggling novelist named Roy (Josh Brolin), this movie’s version of Interiors’ Frederick (Richard Jordan). The biggest difference between them is that Frederick actually looked like a failed novelist, whereas Roy, with his poorly veiled southern accent and unfortunate poodle haircut, looks like Josh Brolin pretending to be a failed novelist. Allen loves casting the hottest new actors in his movies, but in Brolin’s case, he forgot to ask himself whether this was really the right actor for the part.
Roy, like Frederick, had an acclaimed first novel but has been struggling and failing to adequately follow it up ever since. A great novel is like the Holy Grail in Woody Allen movies — everyone wants it, but no one can get it. Some have glimpsed it, or even held it, but none have been able to maintain any sort of grasp on it.
His wife is Sally (Naomi Watts), who’s technically the “funny” version of Renata (Diane Keaton), although she’s more like the characters Mia Farrow used to play. She’s not a tormented, depressed artist like Renata, but a reasonably well-adjusted, supportive and nice wife, who’s also a little controlling and baby-crazy.
Roy is tempted into infidelity by his seductive neighbor Dia (Freida Pinto). Their flirty patter is reminiscent of the creepy, cringe-inducing conversations between Ewan McGregor and Hayley Atwell in Cassandra’s Dream. Like McGregor, Roy uses a lot of weirdly clinical words like “erotic,” “sensual,” and even “erogenous.” In place of wit or ambiguity, their conversations are made up of blunt pronouncements. Once again, Allen’s attempts at sexiness result in an uncomfortable and oppressively unsexy viewing experience.
In Interiors, the care-free Pearl (Maureen Stapleton) was always dressed in bright red colors in a movie that was otherwise deliberately devoid of anything but muted greys and beiges — a symbol of how vibrant and full of life she was in an otherwise dreary world. Dia wears bright red clothing in every one of her scenes (even her bra and underwear are bright red), although her surroundings are not quite as contrasted as Pearl’s. This could mean that Dia is intended to be a spiritual successor to Pearl, although she doesn’t seem that much more vibrant than the rest of the characters. It could just be a coincidence.
While Roy and Dia erotically explore each other’s erogenous zones, Sally is tempted by a dark stranger of her own. Her new boss is a cultured, sexy Spanish man with the amusingly unsexy, un-Spanish name of Greg (played by Antonio Banderas). They, too, participate in some chemistry-free flirtation. In Woody Allen movies like this, it’s just sort of assumed that any man and any woman will fall in love if they have enough screen time together, whether they share a meaningful connection or not. Both Sally and Greg are married, but that is irrelevant. Infidelity is a way of life here — pigeons and Catholics be damned.
In discussing Interiors (a.k.a. the “serious” version of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), Allen cited as a shortcoming his tendency to “write for subtitles” — meaning he found himself inspired less by Ingmar Bergman’s written words than by the simplified, more direct translations that appeared on the bottom of the screen. This has become increasingly true over the last decade. The dialogue of this movie, and so many of Allen’s ‘00s movies, is so simplistic, direct, and lacking in personality that it would translate seamlessly into subtitles. Maybe that’s why the subtitled conversations between Juan Antonio and Maria Elena in Vicky Cristina Barcelona seemed so fresh, and why Woody Allen’s movies are now so disproportionately popular in non-English speaking countries.
The film’s other protagonists are Sally’s parents. Just like in Interiors, they divorce as the movie opens, and the mother (Gemma Jones) is suicidally depressed. Her mood improves when she starts visiting a psychic who gives her nothing but good news — her daughter will find happiness, her husband will regret leaving her, and, yes, she will meet a tall dark stranger.
Somewhat amazingly, Woody Allen got the idea for Jone’s mystic belief system from a conversation he had with Rev. Billy Graham several decades earlier. Graham observed that even if he was wrong, and there turned out to be no God, he’d still have lived a better life having believing in a higher power. So it is with Sally’s mother — her friends and family snicker and call her gullible, but her belief in her psychic’s prescience — and the knowledge that she’ll get another go-around in a future life — gives her hope when everything else is looking so bleak. Despite the fact that he’s equating centuries-old faiths with tarot card psychics, it’s actually one of Allen’s kinder, gentler takes on religion.
Sally’s father, meanwhile, has become suddenly, dramatically aware of his dwindling time on earth, and tries desperately to recapture his youth by driving a sports car, jogging, tanning and chasing younger women. He’s soon married to a ditzy, much-younger actress. Alfie, as he calls himself, is played by the somewhat overqualified thespian Sir Anthony Hopkins.
The story of Sally’s parents is by far my favorite part of the movie. Jones is effortlessly charming, and Hopkins gets a lot of laughs throughout his delusional crisis. Watching him jogging, biking, and trying to keep up with his his 20-something girlfriend and co-workers reveals a light comic side I didn’t realize Hopkins had.
Hopkins’ gold-digging, air-headed, much-younger girlfriend is played by Lucy Punch, who is funny as well, even though Allen’s been mining the “look how dumb this woman is” well of humor relentlessly for decades. Right up until the movie was set to film, this role was to be played by Nicole Kidman, who seems like she’d be a little too intense (and a little too old) for the part. I suppose the part would have unfolded a little differently, otherwise I’m sure Josh Brolin would’ve appreciated the opportunity for audiences to be distracted by an even worse mis-casting than his own.
The strange thing about You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is that, for a so-called “comic variation,” it’s not particularly comic. Outside of Hopkins and Punch, there’s almost nothing that’s even supposed to be funny. There’s a joke about Roy plagiarizing a story from an author friend of his who he’d thought had died that arrives at a very funny conclusion as the movie ends, but other than that, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is confusingly dry.
The characters of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger make terrible, selfish decisions, suggesting a parallel to Husbands and Wives, but there’s no real pain in this movie, or any real sadness. Marriages fall apart, financial ruin arrives in a number of different ways, and someone even attempts suicide — yet the characters never have any real emotional reactions, they just pick up and clomp along to the next plot point.
The movie’s narrator begins and ends by sharing one of the most over-used Shakespeare quotes — “a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” That’s a quote much more applicable to Vicky Cristina Barcelona. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, on the other hand, might signify nothing, but it is sorely lacking in both sound and fury.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is better than some Woody Allen movies and worse than most of them, but it’s done in by its sheer repetitiousness. My qualified praise of Melinda and Melinda and Scoop is applicable here as well — if you like Woody Allen movies, well, this is a textbook Woody Allen movie made with enough competence that you won’t feel insulted. But it has nothing new, and no identifying hook. It is a movie doomed to fall between the cracks. When Allen is gone and his career is remembered, this is the movie that no one will be talking about.
- This was the first movie Allen made without Charles H. Joffe. Joffe, along with his partner Jack Rollins, had managed Allen as a stand-up comic and gotten him a job as a writer on What’s New Pussycat. When Allen wanted to start making his own movies, Joffe and Rollins teamed up to produce Take the Money and Run. They then produced every single subsequent Allen movie, and picked up the Academy Award for Annie Hall when it won Best Picture. Joffe died in 2008, but Rollins is still alive and working at 97.
- This movie was cast in the Spring of 2009, right after Penelope Cruz won an Oscar, but before Whatever Works had been released. That might help explain the inexplicably A-list calibre of the cast.
- Funded by Mediapro, the same Spanish company that financed the majority of Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
- Allen had intended to film this in San Francisco, but it would’ve been too expensive. London just happened to be the cheapest place to film at the time.
- Despite Allen’s claim that he simply couldn’t afford to film anywhere other than London, this movie actually has the biggest budget ($22 million) of any of his films since The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.
- Josh Brolin suggested to Allen that he play the part in a wheelchair, which Allen decided against (Allen: “this is the kind of thing you have to deal with when you’re a director. Of course he can’t play the part in a wheelchair”).
- PBS’ 2011 documentary on Allen featured Josh Brolin reading a note he got from Woody Allen about this movie that began, “I’m not sure if you remember me, but I directed you a few years back in a movie called Melinda and Melinda.”
- This is only Freida Pinto’s second ever movie after her breakout role in Slumdog Millionaire.
- Has the 2nd longest title of any Woody Allen movie (in terms of both words and letters) after Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask. As for the shortest title, because I’m sure you’re dying to know, it’s a 3-way tie between Zelig, Alice and Scoop.