Director/Writer: Woody Allen
Starring: Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins, Naomi Watts, Freida Pinto, Antonio Banderas
Cinematographer: Vilmos Zsigmond
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
By now even Woody Allen’s most ardent defenders have to admit that for some time now he’s been coasting. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s (and ‘60s—what a different landscape film was in then) Allen was far more anarchic, with every picture came a sense of vitality and new ideas. Admittedly they weren’t necessarily new in the grand sense, given how much he’s always enjoyed cribbing from authors and directors he’s admired, but at least new to Allen’s sensibility. They were bold and experimental, both narratively and formally and even if you didn’t enjoy his films, which many didn’t, you still had to respect that there was an artist’s spirit at work.
Today’s Allen has lost that life-and-death conviction; the gleeful intellectual anarchist pushing against the medium’s boundaries hasn’t been seen since 1997’s Deconstructing Harry and, as much as it pains me to admit it, is probably gone for good. But what we have in his place are is a mature artist, whose works are immaculately polished and thematically tight in the manner of work-shopped short stories. This is the location we find You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger in, and as such it’s a cold and calculated film but also one that’s inarguably well-constructed.
Some have characterized the film as a retread of Allen’s nihilistic Husbands and Wives, the last of his Mia Farrow-era pictures and one which exulted in documenting the horrors that couples can wreck against each other while his own was falling to pieces. But while the earlier movie carefully threaded its plots to create a mess of lies and betrayals, Tall Dark instead keeps things as simple as possible. After a woman’s parents get divorced, she and her own husband look elsewhere for relationships, as well. Each one of these four stories is a slightly different variation on the couples’ infidelity with the majority resulting in disappointment, since most of these trysts are based on deceit with little concern for the other parties involved.
Acting and cinematography are predictably great, as they have been for every one of Allen’s features for more than 30 years now. While Tall Dark can be a tad stilted, taking place as it does in Allen’s fictionalized universe, most of it functions so smoothly it makes you forget about all the strings being pulled, right until Allen puts them right up there on the screen and asks viewers to address the manipulations the characters are dealing with. It’s easy to complain that these are types rather than characters up there on-screen, but that’s also what they’re supposed to be and as such they function perfectly. Josh Brolin’s has-been writer is a cliché, but there’s no richer embodiment of this cliché and its implications (not to mention the reasons why it has become a mere cliché) than the way his character is written and portrayed.
So no, Tall Dark isn’t vital and alive, it doesn’t jump with innovation nor is it necessary viewing. There’s a sense that Allen didn’t need to make this particular film, that he could have done one of his seemingly endless other scripts and the product would be just as important to him as this, and this neglect is something you can really feel in the result. It is rather deep, though, and is still the work of a man trying very hard to communicate ideas about the human experience and going about doing so in a way that’s both engaging and revealing—that’s more than can be said for most films directors who are selling their own blood to get their pictures made.