Color me surprised by the new Woody Allen film. The trailer for it looked borderline abysmal, so I went into it with low expectations but simply because of the presence of Anthony Hopkins and Naomi Watts. His latest falls into the category of one of his serio-comic tapestries of characters, and these seem to succeed or fail depending on where Allen’s level of inspiration was at the time of filming. It’s not dark and plot-centric the way Match Point was; and it doesn’t hinge around a specific comic situation like Vicky Christina Barcelona.
At the center of Tall Dark Stranger is a couple played by Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin. Brolin’s character Roy is an aspiring novelist who is in the middle of a severe writer’s block after writing only one successful novel. He’s taken a variety of jobs to pay the bills, but his inability to do anything else well, in addition to constant pressures from his wife and her increasing desire to have a baby before it’s too late for the couple, only increases his performance anxiety. Emasculated Roy tries to stoke the fires of his libido by spying on neighbor Frieda Pinto Rear Window style, and he eventually works up the nerve to talk to her and try to court her. His efforts are sometimes fumbling, often totally inappropriate, and occasionally creepy in their determinedness. There’s also a subplot for Roy featuring some poker buddies, one of whom played by Ewen Bremner, is a brilliant but insecure Scottish writer working on a first novel. He gets into an accident with a friend and the information is miscommunicated to Roy, so that he mistakenly believes it’s Henry Strangler who has died and the friend who’s in a coma. What’s a blocked writer to do when he’s holding the only draft copy of a brilliant novel and he presumes his friend dead? Suffice it to say that this conceit could have easily been the plot of a much darker film on the level of Match Point if Allen had decided to go that way with it. For his part, Brolin plays the entire range of his character very well, and it’s a joy to see him doing something so different from a lot of his recent roles, moping about the apartment as a paunchy, beleaguered artist and brow-beaten husband in socks and rumpled hair.
Watts’ Sally entertains notions of an affair of her own with her boss, art gallery owner Greg, played by Antonio Banderas. Banderas is breezy and funny, and he and Watts have excellent chemistry together. Watts is the film’s lynchpin, providing the central characterization that bridges the ensemble together. Her various relationships show different and varied sides to her character, and it may be hard to characterize her work as outright compelling, but what’s more important in a piece like this is how fluid and understated it all is. She certainly displays more colors, and is more accessible and sympathetic, than Mia Farrow was as she brooded through these roles twenty-five years ago. Watts’ parents are played by Anthony Hopkins and Gemma Jones. Hopkins is having a late-life crisis and has decided his wife’s acceptance of aging has robbed their relationship of any spark, so he jettisons her and develops a fascination with vapid prostitute Charmaine, played by Lucy Punch. Tall Dark Stranger has received a few criticisms for its inclusion of yet another Hollywood May-December romance, but any detractors clearly haven’t seen the film. Hopkins and Punch are an incredibly unlikely match, but it’s a loony, genius pairing and they play brilliantly off each other. This is a relationship that lampoons Hopkins’ Alfie and his obsessions with remaining youthful by trading up with a younger model, even in the very naming of the character, which calls to mind the famous Michael Caine playboy role. And while Alfie is certainly a comic victim, the wisdom he gains and his subsequent change of heart and sense of loss are sadly affecting. For her part, Jones’ Helena is so distraught by this late-in-life rejection that she turns to a local psychic for purpose and some semblance of hope. Borderline suicidal as her story begins, it’s hard not to have genuine empathy for her. But the way Allen twists her into one of his more inspired, nattering, incessant mother characters and a creature of her addictions, she becomes an entertaining comic counterpoint to Alfie and his journey, and a constant thorn in Roy’s side. Down on his luck as Roy is, Helena helps pay Roy and Sally’s bills, and as a result is always stopping by their place after her visits to the psychic to drink their booze and inform the atheistic Roy that God doesn’t intend for him to be a successful novelist in this life.
It’s a somewhat odd ensemble, but it’s one of Allen’s more successful recent ones, and the cast gels together easily and effortlessly. If I have one criticism of Allen, it’s simply the fact that his constant film production is his admitted distraction as a means to keep him from facing his own fear of dying. His characters struggle with love, purpose, commitment, and mortality, sometimes to comic ends, but there’s also a deep sense of hopelessness that has begun to pervade Allen’s work. Romances never last; couples never stay paired; and any philosophy and religion is ultimately just a convenient tonic to make life bearable. Here Allen resists his own most depressing conclusions in favor of the breezy and entertaining, but it’s still present in the background. And even though Allen can fool himself that this merry-go-round of never-ending pairing is part of the inevitable cycle of life, the result is inevitable purposeless and a disturbing lack of meaning. As a result, Allen is most successful and inspired when he follow his more absurd comic threads, as with Alfie’s struggles and the subplot between Roy and Henry Strangler. When the film focuses on characters searching for legitimate meaning, Allen’s lack of spirituality finds him painted into a corner as he ultimately has no answers to provide and no advice to give. It’s something that makes me feel a bit sad for Woody Allen as a person, and it’s interesting how as he gets older, the parallels with Bergman are becoming deeper and deeper. Yet with Bergman, even the darkest existential soul-searching found a purpose; Allen is simply lost and confused and still looking. Luckily for Tall Dark Stranger, he doesn’t dwell on it enough for it to undo the film as it seems to be doing to his own psyche.