Modern Love and Disasters
There’s a sneaky cheekiness to You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger that is inherent in the slyness of the title, which wraps up in one neat little package ideas about romantic fate, our yearning for something better than the pretty good thing we might already have, and an up-to-the-minute restlessness about our lives that hounds even the most comfortable of us. Woody Allen knows — in this, his latest sophisticated sitcom, his latest comedy of modern manners, or lack thereof — that it may all sound like so much whiny bullshit to anyone who can look at the cultured, well-off 21st-century Londoners on display and wonder how they can be possibly be unhappy: the unnamed, omniscient narrator tells us right off the bat that this roundrobin of uncertainty and dissatisfaction and pain is a bunch of sound and fury signifying nothing. And so you can dismiss the entire film as nothing more than that if you feel you must.
I found that not so easy to do, actually, because Allen’s (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Cassandra’s Dream) usual sprawling array of gentle eccentrics and screwball clowns and just plain miserable folk totally enthralled me. Naomi Watts’ (The International, Eastern Promises) Sally, an art gallery assistant, is a little bit in love with her boss, Greg (Antonio Banderas: Shrek Forever After, Once Upon a Time in Mexico), a nice distraction from her disappointing husband, Roy (Josh Brolin: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Jonah Hex), a novelist who cannot seem to finish a second book that will please his publisher like the first one did. Roy distracts himself from Sally’s badgering by wooing their new neighbor, Dia (Freida Pinto: Slumdog Millionaire), a musician, though she is engaged to be married soon and puts off his advances… at least at first. Sally’s mum, Helena (Gemma Jones: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Good), has been abandoned by her husband, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins: The Wolfman, Beowulf), in favor of gold-digger Charmaine (a hilarious Lucy Punch: Dinner for Schmucks, Hot Fuzz), who is less faithful than Alfie presumes.
The ostensible excuse for the title comes via the fortune teller, Cristal (Pauline Collins: Doctor Who), Helena turns to in her unhappy loneliness. But everyone is looking for that little bit of fantasy, that little bit of escape from the mundanity and the melancholy of their lives. And they do each find at least a little taste of it, to varying degrees, and with varying prices to pay for their desperate chase after a scrap of validation of their desires and a smidge of the happiness it seems everyone else is enjoying. It’s hard to be too hard on them, even when they do terrible awful things in their quests, because the wonderfully warm and engaging cast imbues these often unlikeable people with genuine humanity. Though it’s true, too, that the figurative punch in the stomach one character gets as the film ends — it’s the comeuppance to a truly unforgivable act — made me laugh for its got-what-was-coming-to-ya irony as much as it made me feel pity.
Tall Dark Stranger is all about walking that fine line between tragedy and comedy, and Allen pulls it off with panache. His last films made in New York — Hollywood Ending, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion — were absolute disasters of comic mistiming, implausible characters, and true general inanity. But his move to London had reinvigorated him as a filmmaker, and that’s nice to see. He is once more capturing on film the minutiae of modern romance — and what happens when it falls apart — in a way that he hasn’t done in many years.