Old age must have done some good to Woody Allen, the veteran American director who, at the age of 75, is on a creative roll. Since he started making films outside New York (London, Barcelona and currently Paris) and back to New York with Whatever Works (2009), he’s been churning out films that strike a perfect balance between entertaining, literary and broadly appealing. They are the cinematic equivalent of Burt Bacharach with a good dash of philosophy thrown in for good measure.
The ideas Allen’s latest film contains are a catalogue of Allenian motifs – the meaning of life, self-deprecation, happiness, frustration, neurosis, the idea of god etc – but he manages to add an element of newness, surprise and relevance to his own recycled material that is very satisfying.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger marks a return to London, previously visited with Match Point (2005) and Cassandra’s Dream (2007). The city is definitely part of the narrative fabric and the atmosphere of the film, with its awkward, anguished characters, a certain irritability and gritty realism verging on pessimism.
As the title announces from the heights of its fortune telling cliche, the film is about the pursuit of happiness, or at least the illusion of it. And that’s what Helena (Gemma Jones) is seeking after being dumped by Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), who put an end to a decades-long marriage.
Helena seeks the help of a psychic (Pauline Collins), who her daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) knows is a fake but thinks will be more help than a professional psychoanalyst. Sally is not very happy herself, though. Her husband, one-hit book wonder Roy (Josh Brolin), has been struggling for years to write a follow-up, preventing Sally from starting a family as she wants; Roy is a scrounging teenager approaching 40, incapable of making money. Consequently, Sally relies on financial support from her mother while she works as an assistant to a literally tall and dark Antonio Banderas, who plays her gallery owner boss Greg.
In their pursuit of happiness, everyone makes mistakes and step on other people’s dreams. Alfie marries an Essex-accented call girl called Charmaine (brilliantly played by Lucy Punch), who doesn’t wait too long to start cheating on him and virtually driving him to bankruptcy. Roy, in his turn, starts flirting with a pretty neighbour called Dia (Freida Pinto), a music student engaged to marry but who drops everything to elope with the wannabe writer whose solution to his professional failure is far too cringe-worthy to be mentioned.
Several storylines develop and the film leaves their resolution open-ended but clear about the disasters they will probably lead to. In that sense, it can be quite dark and desperate, very realist in the way it portrays the human web of relations. But it does leave room for some hope; if it’s in illusion that we find happiness, then so be it. And who knows, there may actually be an afterlife.
The ensemble cast delivers sterling performances. The scenes when Helena pops in for a visit at Sally and Roy’s are particularly good, their exchanges sound almost like music thanks to the precise rhythm of the actors’ delivery and the fluid, ironic editing.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is the work of an experienced man who does have a few things to say about the complicated art of living. And one senses that what he’s saying here is: just go with the flow. You have no control over anything.