Monday, June 20, 2011

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

It's usually taken for granted, but it's a little amazing that Woody Allen, well over 40 years into his career as a writer-director, continues to be so prolific, to work at the fevered pace of a young man, delivering a film, almost without fail, every year. Granted, not every one of those films is any good — and there are plenty of people who will tell you (mistakenly, I believe) that most of them aren't — but Allen's inexhaustible desire to create, to tell his stories, remains impressive. In recent years, he's delivered at least one masterpiece (the melancholy, incisive Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and a string of variably successful tales about those characteristic Woody subjects: murder, infidelity, dissatisfaction, the desire to be creative and engage with culture. Last year's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger — not even his most recent film, because as a I write this Midnight In Paris is in theaters and another film is already in the works — strikes me as an utterly typical Woody Allen film. It's not a great film, sometimes not even a good one, but rather an embodiment of the Woody ideal. It's what people think of when they think of his work: wry, cultured people cheating on one another in picturesquely filmed settings, eloquently expressing their disappointments. It feels, at times, like Woody by numbers, like even the director himself has internalized the popular conception of his sensibility and has turned out a film that diligently hits all the expected notes of a Woody Allen movie. For all that, the film is often emotionally compelling and, after a rather wan opening act, opens up into a film with some surprisingly intense emotions bubbling up beneath its familiar surface.

The film focuses on several troubled relationships, centering around the family of married couple Roy (Josh Brolin) and Sally (Naomi Watts). Roy's a once-successful, now struggling writer, and Sally is an assistant at an art gallery, both of them in characteristic Woody Allen professions. Sally's parents have gotten a divorce: Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) is possessed by a fear of getting old and becomes obsessed with appearing youthful and vigorous, an obsession that his wife Helena (Gemma Jones) can't share. The film follows these characters as their relationships splinter and new possibilities become apparent; this is Woody's essential subject, the follies of love and desire, intimately linked with the follies of how his characters view themselves, their ambitions and their dreams. The film's situations are familiar in every sense, all following similar romantic comedy templates: Roy becomes fascinated with the beautiful young woman, Dia (Freida Pinto), whose window faces his, Sally grows infatuated with her boss Greg (Antonio Banderas), Alfie falls for a trashy young prostitute (Lucy Punch) who he impulsively asks to marry him, and Helena begins visiting a psychic (Pauline Collins) who reassures her that her future is rosy. These various subplots are predictable, but Woody manages to extract some surprising depth from these old stereotypes.

The scenes between Naomi Watts' Sally and Antonio Banderas' Greg are the film's most emotionally compelling and indeed startling moments, largely because Woody gets such a powerful performance from Watts, who becomes the fiery emotional core of this film. At one point, Greg invites Sally to go to the opera with him, and Sally, who has been nursing increasingly strong feelings for her boss, is excited for the opportunity. There's a great shot of Sally looking obviously stirred by the music at the opera, her eyes slipping sideways to admire Greg with a slyly upturned smile on her lips, her eyes shining, moved by the music and by her attraction to her companion. It's a wonderful moment, wordlessly communicating the intense emotions she's feeling, and this shot's intensity is carried over into the duo's awkward but charming conversation in the car later, as Greg drops Sally off at her home. The romantic tension lingering between the pair is obvious, and the possibility that one or both might lean over at any moment for a kiss hangs between them, unfulfilled, as they stammer and banter.

This emotional subtext is carried over into the later moment when Sally at last hesitantly admits her feelings for Greg, while he awkwardly tries to steer the conversation away from the subject without hurting her feelings, without openly admitting that he does not reciprocate her desire. But Sally refuses to drop the subject until she's gotten some closure; she is obviously determined to follow this through to the end so she knows if what she wanted could ever have been possible. Woody inserts a closeup of Sally, her mouth straining with forced smiles, her eyes barely holding back tears, her face growing increasingly red as she realizes that she's opened up her heart while Greg has shunted her feelings aside, as gently as he could but still painfully. Woody cuts between the two to emphasize the distance between the suave, unmoved Greg, who doesn't seem to fully understand his employee's overwhelming emotions, and the frazzled, disintegrating Sally, who presses on even as she realizes that she's not getting through, that any connection she imagined only existed in her head. Sally's face is heartbreaking: there's such hope in her expression, mingled with despair and desperation and also the dawning understanding that she was wrong.

At the same time, Roy is developing a flirtatious friendship with Dia, their neighbor across the way, who he spies on from his window, watching her play guitar or strip out of her clothes to make love to her fiancé. The two begin spending afternoons together, walking in the park in scenes that recall the cinema of Woody's longtime influence Eric Rohmer, particularly The Aviator's Wife, in which an afternoon spent in a lakeside park similarly flirts with infidelity. The flowery natural beauty of these scenes, coupled with the somewhat eye-rolling romanticism of the fact that Dia always dresses in red, suggests that these scenes are more symbolic than actual. Roy speaks of Dia as his muse, his inspiration, and though he desires her strongly he hardly seems to think of her as a person. That's why it's so surprising when, late in the film, Woody suddenly confronts Roy's romanticism head-on, abruptly revealing that the character's romantic conception of this affair was not necessarily shared by the director or the film. In one scene, after Roy moves out of his home and into Dia's apartment, he looks across the way and sees Sally stripping out of her clothes into black underwear, looking sexy and desirable, just as earlier he'd watched Dia. The shot reinforces the truism that one always wants what one doesn't have, and suggests the first moment of self-awareness for Roy, the first suggestion that he was chasing after a dream and might come to regret it. It's a self-awareness he flinches away from, sadly closing the blinds on the view. In another scene, Dia is angrily and tearfully confronted by her fiancé and his family after calling the wedding off, another reminder that the romantic plot between Roy and Dia is not without its casualties, that what seems so wonderful for Roy is bitterly painful for other people.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger often seems light and cheerful, if not outright comic, so such moments of emotional catharsis are bracing and powerful when juxtaposed against the generally pleasant tone of the film. It's not often a full-on comedy, though Woody's wit does cut through in places, often wedded to the film's darker emotions. In one scene, Helena says about her new boyfriend, "He left me for another woman. A deceased one. They're often the stiffest competition." And then, as though realizing that in her grief she's accidentally told a joke, adds in the same shell-shocked monotone, "no pun intended." The joke itself is classic old-school Woody humor, somewhat corny even, but it's made funny — and also sad and true — by the way it's delivered, an offhanded acknowledgment of the accidental humor that resides in even the saddest stories, a nod to the kinship between tragedy and comedy.

In that regard, this film's navigation of those two dramatic extremes is much defter than the thematically similar Melinda and Melinda, in which Allen tried to separate the two impulses to explore their connections and disjunctions. The link between the funny and the pathetic is much more organic here, and the film knowingly climaxes with dual scenarios that hint at the murder plots of other recent Allen films, without quite heading in that direction. This isn't a great Allen film. It takes a while for the clichés of the film's various plots to resolve into something deeper, and as a result the early stretches of the film are often unsatisfying and awkward. The voiceover, a convention that Woody has increasingly embraced, seems especially tacked on here, and the pat way in which the narration frames the film with references to Shakespeare is just silly. But despite these flaws the film finds Woody investing these overly familiar situations with wit and emotional life, with sparks of energy that go far beyond the basic templates that he is drawing from. Even Alfie's story — by far the most clichéd with its male crisis jokes about Viagra and dumb blondes — climaxes with a moment of surprising emotion in which the hapless Alfie suddenly channels some of Hopkins' sinister intensity, projecting the deadly-serious emotions of a man who's been treated like a punchline for too long. Such moments of emotional revelation, in which Woody unexpectedly overturns and subverts the clichés of the romantic templates that drive the film, make You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger much more than it initially seems to be. In a way, that's the theme Woody is dealing with here: life may follow familiar patterns, but just because a story is familiar doesn't mean that it's not real and painful and exciting and full of surprises for those actually living it.


DavidEhrenstein said...

REALLY disliked this one. I don't think Woody understands Rohmer in the slightest.

Haven't seen the new one as yet but of his more recent films I liked Whatever Works quite a bit. Larry David's dyspepsia is tonic. Far livelier than Woody's. He gives him truly horrible things to say -- things Woody would never utter himself on screen. And Larry says them quite easily.

Patricia Perry said...

These various subplots are predictable, but Woody manages to extract some surprising depth from these old stereotypes.

That pretty much says it all. I found this film to be wildly uneven, but the scenes that do work are amazing. I particularly recall the scene with Naomi Watts just after she realizes that Banderas does not return her affections; she goes home to Brolin and just rips into him, venting all her frustration and despair. It felt unusually raw and real for an Allen film.

Ed Howard said...

Well, Woody's no Rohmer, that's for sure. But still, I enjoyed this well enough. Certainly I thought it was better than Whatever Works, in which it seemed to me that Woody wasn't too clear about whether we were supposed to despise Larry David's character or find him a cuddly grump. I thought Woody did a better job of channeling the despicable aspects of his typical character in Celebrity, with Kenneth Branagh as his stand-in.

Pat, I agree the film is uneven but the highs are quite high, including, yes, some emotional climaxes that hit pretty hard, especially considering that the general tone of the film is often on the light(weight) side. I LOVED Watts' performance in the scenes with Banderas: the closeups on her face as she realizes that he doesn't feel the way she does, and the way she lashes out against everyone else in her life afterward. She's such a great actress and is especially good at pulling up depths of surprising negative feeling from characters who initially seem much brighter. Her sudden nastiness towards her mother at the end, when the loan falls through, is another great moment.

Anagramsci said...

agree with you 100% on Watts in this film Ed--she makes it something quite memorable (especially in her explosive final confrontation)


Ed Howard said...

Yup, she's really great in this, Dave. She makes this character unforgettable with the depth of emotion she brings to the part.

Sam Juliano said...

I am no fan of this film at all, and found it one of his worst ever. But my feelings have been tempered after reading your review, a sterling essay that goes a long way at bringing the various elements together, and making some sense of this exceedingly lightweight confection, one that one first viewing lacks humor and mystery. By contrast, even the recent MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (which I thought also had some serious issues)is far better as a mood piece, and boasts a much stronger screenplay. I do feel like others you acknowledge that this is a Woody-by-the-numbers, but I applaud you for finding enough to keep this off the must-to-avoid list. You hagve a much stronger view of his latest films (I never found VCB to approach masterpiece level)but you also have regularly excelled at making outstanding arguments to support your views. This review is no different.

Sam Juliano said...

Ironically enough, WHATEVER WORKS was my favorite of his recent output. Go figure that one out.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Sam. I certainly don't think this is one of his worst, it has its charms for a mid-tier work with some big issues. I know we have different opinions of Allen's recent work, but this one in particular seems to be fairly divisive. I've seen some people praise it as one of his better recent films, and some say it's one of his worst, while I fall somewhere in between the two extremes.

I'm really looking forward to checking out Midnight In Paris.