Steve Murphy: Woody Allen returns with his latest annual cinematic offering in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. Once more Allen has managed to corral together an excellent cast, with Anthony Hopkins, Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin, Antonio Banderas, and Gemma Jones leading the way. The story centers on the emotional highs and lows of family, love and commitment, and how fragile all of those things are. Brolin plays a writer down on his luck after his latest book undersold. Watts is his wife, an aspiring art gallery owner. Her mother, played by Gemma Jones, is attempting to recover from the sudden abandonment by her husband, Hopkins, who left her for a much younger woman. As the story begins to envelop the characters, Allen tries to keep all of the thematic strings from becoming too frayed and hard to follow, but I’m not certain he was able to manage that as well as he would have liked.
Renn Brown: I don’t know if it’s the fact that he churns them out so routinely or that this particular drama has an especially large number of threads to cover, but this film feels like Woody came up with a batch of characters, and simply went through the story from point A to Z writing whatever scene happened to interest him. That’s not to say the film doesn’t make sense, it’s just that there are seemingly huge moments between characters that are unseen, and not in a way that feels consistent or intentional. The film occasionally catches some great subtle moments that speak volumes about the decay in these relationships, but these moments are extremely scattered and I don’t think it ever manages to generate actual empathy for these people. The film is only occasionally funny and it’s almost always at the expense of the characters, further pushing us back from feeling for anyone. Certain characters fare better than others, and all of the performances are solid, but they drown in a movie that feels like an arbitrary grouping of scenes that gives a lot of impressions but fails to tell much of a story.
Steve Murphy: There are certainly some potentially great character moments that are oddly absent, and it seems strange to me that these types of elements escaped more seasoned eyes. Allen definitely knows how to craft a story, but some of the choices he DOESN’T make are rather glaring. He tends to leave certain story lines dangling for a while as he investigates the goings-on of the other characters, but by the time he gets back to the earlier plot some of the tension and luster has dissipated. It’s an example of sloppy storytelling, and it’s disappointing no matter where it occurs. For their part, the actors try their best to infuse their scenes with vigor and energy, and I felt they succeeded. While there isn’t a performance that stands above the rest, they did a great job in spite of some choppy editing and awkward story decisions.
Renn Brown: I did particularly enjoy Anthony Hopkin’s portrayal of a man who has left his wife of 40 years to have a pretty intense three-quarters-life crisis. He’s one of the only characters that I found myself invested in, and that is due mostly to Hopkin’s sensitive performance. His scenes were very often funny, but I didn’t feel like the film was completely disregarding him as a person, as I so often did with other characters. Unfortunately, his storyline and those most closely connected to it are what threw into such a sharp relief how much this feels like a watered-down Woody Allen take on Happiness. The set-up and structure is the same –a group of connected people all deal with the frustrations and inadequacies in their lives in an inter-woven narrative, and even the characters are similar! There’s the recently broken up older couple and their daughter dealing with an unsatisfying marriage, plus the woman’s husband who is trying to cover a pretty terrible secret. The same themes of ennui, infidelity, the fear of death, and dependency that are all so difficult to confront in our lives. Unfortunately, there’s nothing even remotely as memorable in this as there is in Solondz bizarre story, other than the collection of generally good performances.
Steve Murphy: Hopkins is very good, but I found myself invested in Naomi Watts’ character also. She’s the singular thread in all the subplots, being Hopkins and Jones’ daughter and Josh Brolin’s wife. With Banderas, she works as his assistant, and they share a car scene together that is pretty intense. The problem is there aren’t enough moments like that one anywhere else in the film. So for me she is the common denominator, and if Allen had treated her as such (instead of just another plot tool), then perhaps we would be talking about a different film altogether. But instead this is another fairly forgettable and regrettable offering from Woody Allen, and it left me disappointed because of what it could have been. If he had spent more time tightening the story and honing the narrative flow more… but that’s all I’m left with: a bunch of what-ifs. Too bad.
Renn Brown: The most frustrating thing is that with such an excellent cast, and Allen’s still-obvious skill at handling big, loud, emotional character scenes, he chooses to skip the ripest shifts in the story. What the hell is this movie doing telling us that a couple has decided on divorce and split up in a throwaway line of narration? This is a scene we need to see, especially when the cast and director would obviously have been able to handle it. I understand leaving certain things to the imagination or purposely hiding something big from us, but in this case it feels more like Woody forgot than a story-serving decision. It’s a shame to see a director seemingly in narrative auto-pilot when nearly every scenes speaks to a continuing talent at choreographing human drama. In a year when so many of the considered “top-tier” American directors seem to be firing on all cylinders, it’s a shame You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger is a Woody Allen entry that is too unfocused and small to list with them.
Steve: 5.5 out of 10
Renn: 6 out of 10
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