Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Woody in rueful form. What else is new?

Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin, not so happy.

It seems like lifetimes ago since we eagerly looked forward to the next Woody Allen movie. By turning out a picture every year, Allen seems to have deflated our expectations. It also hasn’t helped that many of Allen’s recent movies have been less than wonderful. As a result, Allen finds himself in an odd position: His concerns as an artist are universal, but the movies seem to have left him behind.
Allen’s latest -- You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger -- arrives on screen without much feeling of urgency. Although it balances equal amounts of wit and rue, Allen’s new foray into the sea of emotional desperation we sometimes call “life” doesn’t cut very deeply, and, as you reflect on the movie, you may find yourself thinking, “Yeah, yeah, Woody. We know.”

Allen begins by applying Macbeth’s worldview to the proceedings: “It (life) is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Brilliant words, especially when you remember that Shakespeare didn't spend even one evening watching cable news.

After providing us with this incisive view of life’s meaning (or lack thereof), Allen traces a drama that more or less illustrates the point, catching a variety of characters in mid-flight as they flail against the inevitable letdown that's bred by self-serving ambition.

Filled with the usual infidelities, foolish decisions and personal disasters, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger falls somewhere between Allen’s comic and serious mode, which, I suppose, makes it a seriocomic exploration of the ways in which characters can betray themselves, sometimes with the help of unexpected twists of fate.

Tall Dark Stranger returns Allen to London where he introduces a variety of interrelated characters played by a large ensemble of capable actors.

I’ll give you a sampling: Josh Brolin portrays a novelist who’s unable to get his second book off the ground; his wife (Naomi Watts) works in art gallery. Her father (Anthony Hopkins) has left her mother (Gemma Jones) and has taken up with a younger woman (Lucy Punch) who boosts his libido while emptying his wallet.

For her part, Jones’ character seeks solace with a psychic (Pauline Collins), who pretty much tells her clients whatever they want to hear. For good measure, Allen casts Antonio Banderas as the owner of the art gallery where Watts’ character plies her trade.

The men don’t exactly come off as role models. Fearing the limiting encroachments of age, Hopkins' character makes an obvious fool of himself with a younger and entirely inappropriate woman. Fearful of failure, Brolin’s character becomes infatuated with a woman (Freida Pinto) he spies on while gazing across a courtyard into her conveniently open window.

Both Brolin and Hopkins give performances that exemplify a trait common to many Allen male characters, the assumption that a new romance (or maybe just a new bedmate) will provide the necessary courage to continue on life’s hopeless journey. They try to reinvigorate themselves through women.

Allen doesn’t take us anywhere we haven’t been with him before, a familiarity which may not breed contempt, but which may also account for the movie’s slightly washed-out feeling. Or maybe that’s the result of the existential exhaustion that pervades the movie, sort in the way humidity can take over a hot day in muggy climes.

So there you have it: another Allen movie, another case of the big-screen heebie-jeebies.

"Yeah, yeah. We know."


It probably doesn't hurt to hear it again.

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