Blu-ray Review: Woody Allen’s “Tall Dark Stranger”

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (Sony Pictures Classics, 2010)
On Blu-ray and DVD, available Feb. 15

“A tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” the narrator promises at the outset of the filmmaker’s 41st feature. But is it something about nothing, or just plain nothing?

The Story: Allen enters his sixth decade as a writer/director with another of his moral inquiries, along the lines of 2005’s Match Point (a highlight of the last ten years) and 2007’s Cassandra’s Dream (rock-bottom). Don’t expect many, or any, laughs; the funny business is pretty much incidental as a group of Londoners grope toward a hoped-for transcendence. Well-to-do Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) dumps his wife of 40 years, Helena (Gemma Jones), to regain his lost vitality; she finds renewal in spiritualism (a recurrent phenomenon in Allen’s work) while his bank account is sapped by a spendthrift “actress” girlfriend half his age, Charmaine (Lucy Punch). Alfie and Helena’s daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) is disenchanted with her vacant marriage to an American writer, Roy (Josh Brolin), who after early success has floundered and now ekes out a living as a chauffeur. Both drift into would-be affairs, she with Greg (Antonio Banderas), the married owner of the gallery she takes a job at, and he with the soon-to-wed Dia (Freida Pinto), the woman he glimpses in the window across the way from their flat. Fate dangles before Roy an opportunity to reverse his fortunes, but this is the 75-year-old Allen in a mood of gloomy introspection, where every attempt at self-improvement comes with a price.

Like I said, expect minimal cheer here. (There are only one or two laugh-out-loud lines, as when Alfie apologizes to Charmaine for taking her to a production of Ghosts, where they fail to materialize.) Or any lines to approach what the narrator quotes from Shakespeare. This is middling Allen, with the usual flaws that we’ve come to expect from his late-period movies, notably sketchy writing that feels like an early draft of something that might have blossomed with greater care and a tone-deafness about aspects of real life. Roy’s poker-playing buddies, for example, seem to have drifted in from one of his New York scripts and their visit to a hospital in one scene is completely stilted, as if the filmmaker has his own personal cadre of physicians and has never visited one.

Compensating is a better-than-usual gallery of performances. Allen has never had any trouble mustering starry casts, no matter that he often wastes them in subpar roles. Getting the short end of the stick this time are a morose Banderas and Pinto, the Slumdog Millionaire starlet, who is merely (and attractively) decorative. Everyone else receives a healthier portion, and digs in. Hopkins, weaker and more vulnerable than usual, is excellent as the hapless Alfie, and matched by Jones, whose Helena comes to show a surprising resilience. Watts and Brolin, by contrast, fold pitilessly, with Watts vivid in her entrapment and Brolin, who even with a weird fluffy haircut is a rougher, outdoorsy type than I would have expected to visit the Allen universe, fits in well. Smaller parts are played by familiar British faces, including Trainspotting‘s Ewen Bremner, Pauline Collins (as Helena’s fortune teller), Christian McKay (the Orson Welles of Me and Orson Welles), Anna Friel, and Celia Imrie.

Audio/Video: This is only the third Allen film to hit Blu-ray–Manhattan (1979) is the absolute must for the format–and you’d figure the subject matter would lend itself to gray London skies. But the great Vilmos Zsigmond, working with Allen for the third time, has shot most of it on sunny days and the scenic views from Alfie and Charmaine’s hoity-toity condo and the scenes set in gardens look picture-perfect in 1080p HD (1.78:1 aspect ratio). The English-language audio, in LCR DTS-HD MA, is clear if unspectacular in a typically dialogue-driven piece, interspersed with a few standards.

Special Features: Allen shuns supplements, so don’t look for any here. The disc does include the trailer, which strip mines the film for every glint of humor to sell it as the comedy it isn’t.

Bottom Line: Likely to appeal more to the Allen faithful than, say Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) or Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), looking into my crystal ball I say You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger will appeal to them, which is something of an accomplishment given his wobbly track record since the mid-90s.