Writer-director Woody Allen wastes no time in showing his hand, having "When You Wish Upon a Star" playing over the opening credits for "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger." And lest you have any lingering doubts about Allen's thoughts on wishing, they are laid to rest when the narrator in the first minutes of the film cites Shakespeare's classic line about life "signifying nothing."
The film centers on the unhappy marriages of Roy and Sally (Josh Brolin and Naomi Watts), and Sally's parents, Alfie and Helena (Anthony Hopkins and Gemma Jones). And it won't surprise to learn there are plenty more failed relationships on the horizon. There are, of course, countless familiar elements in "Stranger," ranging from Allen's steadfastly bleak view of fidelity to his love of Spanish guitar to a feisty hooker. Fortunately the film doesn't feel as tired and overwrought as some of his other recent work.
Brolin and Watts are terrific apart from one another, but their scenes together lack any sense of rhythm, a fact made all the more unfortunate because it is in their apartment that Allen does some of his camera best work. Helena has a grating penchant for popping in unannounced, and the scenes where she, Sally and Roy dance from room to room sparring are masterfully shot. Allen somehow found a place in the hallway from which he could effortlessly move in and out of every room.
Lucy Punch as Charmaine, Alfie's trophy wife, is perfect. From the down-market accent to the gum-chewing and hair-twisting to the bombshell body, she is the consummate bimbo. Yet she manages to bring enough spark and intelligence (somehow) to the role to make it more than it might be. And Gemma Jones is as annoying as you could hope for as the cuckold who turns to psychics and whiskey to get through her loneliness -- you can understand why Alfie left her, but you still know it was wrong.
Allen has clearly been doing some deep introspection in his old age, and it appears that maybe he regrets some of things he's done or at least how he's done them. He drapes his younger stand-in, Brolin, in drab tans and browns, and his elder stand-in, Hopkins in an array of beiges -- he's clearly fading. And when the men lunge greedily for what they want, they each come up empty-handed.
"You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" is interesting and smart, and has some thoughtful things to say about desire and longing, but it's not quite deep, funny or profound enough to really grab you. Allen's seems to have recaptured his sense of narrative, however the wit isn't quite as sharp as it once was.