You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is what I would call mid-range Woody Allen. Moments in it are sublime. It’s entertaining throughout. Sometimes it’s hysterically funny (often in a throwaway bit). It’s close to invariably on-target as concerns human nature. And its bitterness is more good-natured than not. But—at least on one viewing and with no distance—it falls shy of being a great Woody Allen picture. That, mind you, doesn’t keep it from being pretty darn good—at least from the perspective of someone who has no problem being called a Woody Allen fan.
It’s interesting that Tall Dark Stranger and Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter opened locally on the same week. Both are multistoried films with interconnecting plotlines and both focus on psychics, though the psychic in Tall Dark Stranger, Cristal (Pauline Collins, Shirley Valentine), is transparently bogus—even if she does happen to be right most of the time. And of course, Hereafter is much more seriously intended. Yet, I can’t help but feel that Allen’s film has more to say about the meaning of it all—or lack thereof—when all is said and done.
Tall Dark Stranger follows two couples—and, by extension, the people each of the four persons become involved with. First we have Helena (Gemma Jones) and Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), who have just split up—mostly over the fact that Alfie can’t deal with the fact that he’s no longer thirtysomething. They have a daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts), who is married to a struggling writer of debatable talent, Roy (Josh Brolin). Roy peaked with his first book, which is to say the one that “showed promise.” His subsequent efforts have not lived up to that promise, so he spends his time endlessly re-writing his most recent effort while Sally works and Helena pays the rent.
When the film opens, Helena—following world-class depression and a suicide attempt—is just coming under the spell of “psychic” Cristal, whom Sally has encouraged her to see in the belief that even an outright fraud might be helpful. Sally’s not entirely wrong in this, but what she fails to see is that Cristal may not be in her best interest, since any rational outsider is apt to point out the flaws in Helena’s relationship with her daughter and son-in-law. Nonetheless, Cristal does give the increasingly tippling Helena a sense of hope about the future—along with insight into Roy’s prospects for literary success.
Alfie, on the other hand, has found that life as a 70-ish swinging bachelor isn’t quite what he imagined it might be—no matter how much he exercises or how much Viagra he keeps on hand. This leads him to take up with a prostitute, Charmaine (Lucy Punch, Hot Fuzz), an utterly vacuous bimbo (she complains that Ibsen’s Ghosts isn’t scary) who is, however, physically accommodating. That she comes with a price doesn’t seem to occur to Alfie, who—in the throes of some kind of insanity—decides to marry her. Not surprisingly, this horrifies everyone else and will prove to be a bad idea.
Cristal assures Helena that not only will Alfie never care for Charmaine as he cared for her, but also that Helena is destined to meet someone herself—presumably the tall dark stranger of the title. And she will, even if occult bookshop owner and grieving widower Jonathan (Roger Ashton-Griffiths, The Brothers Grimm) is more short and bald than tall and dark. Allowances have to be made. The only tall dark stranger is Greg (Antonio Banderas), an art-gallery owner for whom Sally works—and in whom she becomes romantically interested. In the meantime, Roy has become entangled with Dia (Freida Pinto, Slumdog Millionaire), the pretty girl he can see from his workroom window.
Clearly, there are all sorts of recipes for disaster here—and more to come. There’s also room for a degree of redemption for some, even if happiness in Tall Dark Stranger only seems possible for the blissfully clueless (if indeed they are) and the cheerfully bogus. Most of this works—and it works better the more you think about it and savor it—but, no, it’s not as funny as a lot of Allen films (including, I’d say, last year’s Whatever Works). It also duplicates the same problem—albeit to a lesser degree—I had with the use of narration in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), simply because the tone of the narration is so clearly Allen that it seems a distracting affectation to use someone else’s voice. But all in all, I like the film a lot more than I didn’t—and I suspect I’ll like it even more as time goes by. Rated R for some language.