So it turns out that shooting in Europe is not, in fact, the secret to making a good Woody Allen movie. Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona gave me hope, but now comes You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger to crush that hope into fine powder and scatter it on the breeze. Allen's latest is a mirthless, turgid affair that underneath its thin intellectual gloss is as disposable as your average sitcom episode. I still have a couple dozen Woody Allen films on my backlog yet to be watched (that happens when a director puts out a movie a year for over four decades), but from what I've seen this is easily one of the top five least essential films he's ever made, if not a contender for the very top.
Since the movie is divided into four intercut, interconnected storylines, I'll just boil this down into four separate reviews. First off, the nucleus through which all characters connect is Naomi Watts as an assistant to an art gallery owner. She's unhappy in her marriage to a failed writer but has two passions, the first being her lust for her boss, played by Antonio Banderas, and the second being her desire to open her own gallery. Watts gives the film's best performance (which isn't to say that she comes within a million miles of deserving awards attention, she's merely pretty good), but her story fizzles out into the one of the most bizarre question marks of an "ending" I've seen in years. Not to be confused with an intentionally ambiguous and haunting ending like No Country for Old Men; it just feels like they forgot to shoot the last part and then decided in the editing room that it was fine, no one would notice. Well, I did. It left the half-hour invested in her feeling like a waste of time.
Speaking of No Country, Watts's husband is played by none other than Josh Brolin, who seems to be filling the role that Allen himself would have played twenty years ago as a rueful failed writer who had one book published and has seen every manuscript since rejected. His end of the marriage is even more loveless than his wife's (note: if you cannot keep the passion alive with Naomi Watts, you are probably gay), but his internal fire is reignited by watching the woman in red who lives in the flat across the street, played by Freida Pinto.
In terms of plot, Brolin's story is far and away the best part of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. The desperate measures he takes to get a book published lead to the film's only satisfying and clever resolution, one of its few moments that made me laugh out loud and probably the only moment worthy of Allen at his peak. However, the big problem here is Freida Pinto playing a walking wet dream on legs with the character depth of a saucepan. I'm not faulting Pinto here — she does just fine — but Allen for saddling her with dialogue and scenes no actress on earth could have salvaged. Look Woody, I get that you enjoyed jerking off to her in Slumdog Millionaire. But that doesn't mean you have to give her a scene where Josh Brolin admits to spying on her changing clothes and having sex through her window and she responds by smiling and giggling, because no one in the world would respond like that. It made my skin crawl to watch. Easily one of the worst movie characters of 2010.
Next up we got Anthony Hopkins as Watts's father, who has recently had a crisis of mortality, divorced his wife of forty years, and married a hooker who gives him sex and the illusion of love in exchange for buying anything she wants. More so than any other story I feel like this could have potentially been developed into an interesting feature, but as is it's very light on laughs outside of the scene where Hopkins introduces his new wife to his daughter and her husband, and it's light on emotion because, really, who cares if Hopkins realizes he's made a mistake? I mean, he's an asshole for what he did to his old wife in the first place, so he pretty much deserves whatever he gets. It would've taken much more time to develop him into someone who we care about despite that, time which the film can't spare.
(And yes, this film features both Zorros from the 1998 swashbuckling classic The Mask of Zorro, Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins! Sadly, that's probably my favorite thing about it.)
Finally, Gemma Jones plays Watts's mother and Hopkins' ex-wife, who turns to a fortune teller to soothe her pain and finds love anew with an occult book store owner. This story comes to a very traditional cinematic resolution and has no outstandingly bad characters cluttering it up, but it's also the least creative and most boring of the movie. Frankly, if this story was the whole film then I'd probably consider You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger to be one of the worst movies of the year.
As is it's not one of the worst of the year but merely an instantly forgettable trifle of a film that will not enrich the life of anyone who sees it in any way. I'm not gonna get all melodramatic and claim that Woody Allen will never make a good film again, because a lot of people did that in the early 00s before Woody busted out the terrific Match Point as a cinematic "fuck you!" to all doubters, but I can say with absolute certainty that fifty years from now this will be a film no one mentions when they discuss his filmography.
2 Stars out of 5