‘You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger’

Woody Allen realizes "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" is hardly one of his masterpieces.

The filmmaker says so himself, albeit indirectly, at the start of the movie, when unseen narrator Zak Orth quotes Shakespeare’s "Macbeth" and its title character’s bleak assessment of life as "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Signifying nothing? Maybe — after all, this is a Woody Allen movie, and you can’t have a Woody Allen movie without somebody (sometimes everybody) staring down into life’s abyss.

But a tale told by an idiot? Not even Allen’s legions of detractors would go that far.

That doesn’t mean they would go for "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," though.

It’s a decidedly minor entry in Allen’s deservedly celebrated cinematic canon, which now numbers more than 40 movies (as a director; he’s over 50 as a writer) stretching back to the mid-1960s.

Yet because I’m one of those folks who consider a minor Woody Allen movie a major improvement over most of what passes for entertainment at the multiplex these days, this annual visit to Woody’s World ranks as a deceptively droll diversion.

It’s hardly a laff riot; most of the characters are too distracted, or distraught, to find the rueful humor in their circumstances.

Yet the humor is there. It’s just easier to see it because we’re observing, not enduring, the crises confronting the movie’s various characters.

The action takes place in London, where the emotional travails of a mother and daughter provide the movie’s narrative spine.

Helena (Gemma Jones, who’s played mothers in everything from "Sense and Sensibility" to "Bridget Jones’ Diary") has just been dumped by her longtime husband Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), now dedicating his life to a strenuous quest to turn back his ever-advancing life clock.

At least Helena and Alfie’s daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) is still married — to Roy (Josh Brolin), a once-promising novelist desperate to deliver on that unrealized (and possibly nonexistent) promise.

Sally would love to have a baby, and open her own art gallery — not necessarily in that order. For now, however, she’s forced to take another going-nowhere job, this time as assistant to Greg (sly charmer Antonio Banderas), an urbane gallery owner whose own marriage doesn’t exactly qualify for happily-ever-after status.

And while Sally’s at work, Roy stares out the window at the vision in red who’s just moved in across the street: Dia ("Slumdog Millionaire’s" lovely Freida Pinto), an alluring academic who presents a vivid contrast to the increasingly strident Sally.

Alfie also has a new distraction in his life: Charmaine (the fearless Lucy Punch of "Hot Fuzz" and "Dinner for Schmucks"), an "actress" several decades his junior, whose sole talents seem to be wearing outfits designed for maximum (or should that be Maxim?) exposure — and, inevitably, spending Alfie’s money.

Good thing the distraught Helena’s found her own way to cope with Alfie’s new life: Cristal (deadpan "Shirley Valentine" delight Pauline Collins), a sympathetic psychic whose visionary powers may exist only in Helena’s mind.

Ah, well. As "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" points out, sometimes illusions work better than medicine.

Especially when the characters themselves supply the illusions.

It’s hardly new territory for Allen, who revisits several favorite themes, from the mysterious allure of the occult to the amazing ability of seemingly rational adults to justify the most unjustifiable behavior — as long as it’s theirs.

"You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" feels less tightly structured than many of Allen’s previous comedies, almost as if we’re wandering around London, bumping into acquaintances and catching up with what’s new (and disastrous) in their lives.

Yet the movie also features a fascinating array of parallels and dualities, as characters consider roads (and people) not taken — subtly presented in a light and glancing style, but unmistakably there.

Working for the third time with Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond , Allen sets these characters loose in a not-for-tourists London, the tidy atmosphere contrasting with their messy personal lives.

Speaking of those messy personal lives, it’s a treat (as always) to watch Allen’s all-aces cast bring these characters to life, from Watts’ frustrated yearning to Hopkins’ desperate determination to ignore the inevitable passage of time — until Punch’s deliriously dim-bulb Charmaine makes that utterly impossible. (Special kudos to costume designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor for Charmaine’s uproariously trashy get-ups.)

And if the rumpled Brolin, the cast’s lone American, seems a bit out of place, he is — forever unable to bridge the gap between the life he’s stuck with and the one he thinks he deserves.

The always-on-target Jones, meanwhile, brings a whimsical sweetness to Helena, the one character who faces, and embraces, the notion that a tall dark stranger will, someday, be coming for us all.

Of course, Helena might have more than a few screws loose — but who’s to say that’s an unreasonable response to life’s endless crazed parade?

Sorry, Woody, but that hardly qualifies as "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Another Shakespearean reference, this one from "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," seems far more appropriate: "Lord, what fools these mortals be!"

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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