My enjoyment of Woody Allen’s latest was almost spoiled initially by the debacle created by another chaotic queuing process that almost spilled over into something ugly on Saturday morning on the Croisette. With the screening almost immediately following the earlier Another Year showing in the same cinema (a logistical nightmare even on paper), hundreds, maybe even thousands of critics spewed out into the queuing area to find a security team woefully underprepared, and no sign of where they were supposed to queue to get into the next film. The result of which, combined with a few too many hot-heads and over-excited hacks fearing they would miss out on the opportunity to see Allen’s magic on screen, was a media scrum, with people piling against gates and people actually screaming (though I must add unnecessarily). When the security team eventually decided to try and separate us according to badge colour, the atmosphere changed, and there was a tangible sting of anger among those who were at the front but were cursed with a supposedly lesser badge. People shoved, security members, somewhat unbelievably pushed back, and certain members of the press took it upon themselves to simply barge inhumanely through others (I was elbowed by Mark Kermode no less as he was shepherded in quickly).
If the festival organisers aren’t careful, this year’s event is in danger of being overshadowed by the bad feeling towards them, and their ridiculous (and hugely unfair) meritocracy system. I wont go as far as the Guardian staffer who brilliantly went all Larry David and called “them” all c**ts, but I will ask them to heed the warning. I fear, however, that the same system that undervalues the blogger’s value at the festival, wont bat an elitist eyelash in my direction.
Anyway, onto the film. Deep breath.
A colleague said to me in the run up to the festival that Woody Allen has a rough success rate of 50%, and that he follows one each good film with a generally badly received one. The good news for everyone is that the last release was Whatever Works, a seemingly dream partnering of Allen and Larry David which never took off and of which I have heard very few kind words.
The long and short of it is that Woody Allen paints character portraits better than most of his contemporaries- he has honed the art of creating relationships on screen, and investigating the various forms of love, both positive and destructive, that clearly still fascinate him. They are his bread and butter, and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is no different for the most part: Allen manages to offer mostly rounded characters across the board, with enough substance that we genuinely care what happens to them, and also to portray relationship dynamics that are both intriguing and thoroughly compelling.
The plot isn’t actually enormously important: Allen, as always, plays with ideas; this time of relationship crime and punishment, of the danger of seeking the apparently unattainable, and of what happens when love becomes dysfunctional and broken. The two relationships at the heart of the narrative- between Josh Brolin and Naomi Watts, and between Anthony Hopkins and Gemma Jones- are the emotional epicentre of the film. They are the ground-zero of everything else that blossoms out from them, and as such it is useful that all four character performances are pretty strong, particularly the male halves of the quartet.
Elsewhere Lucy Punch impresses in her now-familiar bimbo act as Hopkins new gold-digging love (and carries the greatest comic burden of the film well), and Antonio Banderas is as sultry and cool as ever as Watt’s boss, Greg, who captures her attention when her marriage with Brolin’s Roy begings to falter under the weight of his unfinished manuscript and unfulfulled creative potential.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, as implied by the title, is all about people searching for something. In most cases, that something is unattainable, though each character believes that achieving their fantasy will represent an achieved ideal, and will somehow validate their own existence.
It is actually fairly difficult to identify any character who we can feel empathy for- in parts we are offered the chance to pity them at least, though their flaws, usually depicted through their choices or treatment of other characters are enough to make empathy a distant possibility at most. Here Allen slightly drops the ball- I always felt his greatest films took a version of himself and built a narrative around that figure, and no matter their idiosyncrasies, the audience would be compelled to feel their journey explicitly. Without a very obvious Allen-caricature (Josh Brolin qualifies at a push), the characters float about, competing for attention, but never really winning, and it is difficult to establish a heart for the film.
Rather unfortunately, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger somewhat furthers the feeling that Allen occasionally doesn’t spend long enough developing his scripts, as IndieWire’s review excellently puts it:
More a diagram for a movie than a work that feels fully realized or inhabited by real people, this London-set comic melodrama is poplated a sorry lot of unhappy folks who switch partners and fail by chasing misguided illusions. Thanks to the attractive cast and some clever scenes, it’s a notch above Scoop and Whatever Works among the Woodman’s recent output, but very far indeed from Match Point and Vicky Christina Barcelona.
I have to agree with the dissection- the characters in places do feel more like snap-shots (as I said above its difficult to really empathise with any of them) or caricatures that fit the Woody Allen model, rather than characters he has created. Oddly, Allen doesnt really seem to like any of his characters either- a pervading theme is that of unattainable fantasies, which usually take the manifest form of infidelity or ill-conceived relationships, which are obviously doomed to fail to everyone able to look at them objectively, meaning that the audience cant root for any of them to succeed, and allows Allen to have a little Machiavellian fun of his own. He plays with his characters, humiliating them in the manner of Greek tragedy, and teaching them-mostly- that the grass definitely isnt always greener. These characters largely get their come-uppance, especially Anthony Hopkins who goes through what must be the latest mid-life crisis on record, but Allen cleary revels in his omnipotent moral vengeance along the way.
I’m not usually one to spout on and on about a particular actor, but Josh Brolin is really doing it for me at the minute. With him stealing the thunder from Gordon Gekko in Wall Street 2 earlier in the week, I was bound to be excited at the prospect of seeing his turn as a struggling author in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. And Brolin doesnt disappoint, offering a measured performance, in which he is likeable to forgive his transgressions, an comic enough to make his own resolution genuinely funny in a tragi-comic sort of way.
It is Brolin who carries the weight of another typical Allen mechanism, the introduction, late in the film, of a moral and legal flashpoint with wider implications, which doesnt necessarily find resolution or retribution by the time the film ends. I wont spoil the surprise, but its very good, and features an almost indistinguishable Ewen Bremner, hidden under an impressively bushy beard. It adds a flourish to a plot that may well have become a little grim.
Overall, this is not Woody Allen’s best, but it is a long way from his worst. Allen still paints intimate character portraits, he builds in the kind of narrative hooks that really drive his work, and of course he inspires great performances from his cast. The film will no doubt receive split reviews, but then that’s part of the Allen brand, and Im sure he wouldnt have it any other way.