Woody Allen’s mood is more melancholy than jocular in this ensemble piece about the randomness of relationships and the hopelessness of achieving much in either work or love. There are certainly amusing moments here, but the jibes have a sour tone, and the characters are viewed as pathetic creatures condescendingly observed from an Olympian height of world-weary cynicism. What Allen seems to be aiming for in “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” is a sort of dark—some would say mean-spirited—reworking of Max Ophuls’ classic “La Ronde” (1950); even the laughs in it are mostly pretty grim. But the skill of the construction, and the efforts of the excellent cast assembled to play it, make it an intriguing, fitfully amusing piece, although a rather misanthropic one.
As the title suggests, the script points up the absurdity of the notion that people will serendipitously meet the partners they’re destined to be with. The roundelay begins with Helena (Gemma Jones), a slightly dotty divorcee who visits a fortune-teller named Cristal (Pauline Collins) for advice. Helena’s at loose ends after her husband of more than thirty years, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), has left her, suddenly obsessed with staying young. As part of that process, Alfie finds himself a trophy wife—a so-called actress and obvious gold-digger called Charmaine (Lucy Punch). Meanwhile their daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) is increasingly unhappy over the state of her marriage to Roy (Josh Brolin), a one-hit-wonder novelist whose recent writing efforts have all failed, leaving their finances in such distress that they have come to depend on Helena’s largesse (and to tolerate her constant harping over Roy’s refusal to make use of his medical degree and earn a real living). Sally’s also anxious to have children—something that Roy keeps putting off.
Given that, it’s perhaps not too surprising that Roy begins taking an interest in Dia (Freida Pinto), the beautiful young musician who moves in across the courtyard and whom he watches—and listens to—strumming Boccherini on the guitar through his window (and hers). He works up the courage to ask her to lunch, and becomes besotted with her even though she’s engaged (an arrangement she’ll eventually break off, much to the consternation of both the families involved, as well as her beau). The affair leads to his divorce from Sally. At the same time she secures a job as assistant to successful art gallery owner Greg (Antonio Banderas), who’s having marital troubles of his own, and before long comes to think there might be a chance of something happening between them. And Helena finds a soulmate in a widower, occult bookstore owner Jonathan (Roger Ashton-Griffiths), who feels it necessary to get his late wife’s permission (via seances) before taking the relationship further, while Alfie finds that Charmaine soon tires of his old-man’s pastimes—cue Allen’s wicked shots at the woman’s artistic obtuseness—and strikes out on her own at the gym. As if all that weren’t enough, desperate Roy decides on an unsavory way to save his career when a friend of his, who’s just completed a brilliant first novel, has a terrible accident.
Not every character in “Tall Dark Stranger” meets with an unhappy end, but even those who don’t can hardly be thought of as having achieved the bliss they believe they’re stumbling toward. Allen’s clever plotting and his first-rate players insure that it’s interesting, and often funny—though given the rather leaden pacing, never scintillating—to watch these specimens of human folly colliding with one another like balls on a billiard table, with the message in their movement being that ultimately the paths they choose to take make very little difference. But in the end you’re more likely than not to be depressed by all their shenanigans. There’s no pattern, no goal to the process, and certainly no guiding force at work, unless it’s a capricious, malevolent one. Nor are the characters sufficiently fleshed out, despite the efforts of the actors, to make them anything more than the one-dimensional playthings of Allen’s dyspeptic view of human nature. Allen’s point seems simply to say that the people portrayed here—and by extension each and every one of us—are all uniformly wrongheaded; we’re just wrongheaded in different ways. That’s just the reality of the human condition.
If you don’t mind receiving such a message about your life, and coming out of the theatre a bit depressed as a result, “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” can certainly be recommended as a canny rejection of the notion that things will turn out well. Otherwise you’re destined to find it a real downer.