*You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (R)
Kimball's Peak Three, Tinseltown
There's a sneaky cheekiness to You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger that's inherent to its ominous title: In one neat little package, it wraps up ideas about romantic fate, our yearning for something better than the pretty good thing we might already have, and an up-to-the-minute restlessness about our lives that hounds even the most comfortable of us.
Woody Allen knows — in this, his latest sophisticated sitcom, his latest comedy of modern manners, or lack thereof — that it may all sound like so much whiny bullshit to anyone who can look at the cultured, well-off, 21st-century Londoners on display and wonder how they can possibly be unhappy. Our unnamed, omniscient narrator tells us right off the bat that this round-robin of uncertainty and dissatisfaction and pain is a bunch of sound and fury signifying nothing. And so you can dismiss the entire film as nothing more than that if you feel you must.
But I found that not so easy to do, actually, because Allen's usual sprawling array of gentle eccentrics and screwball clowns and just plain miserable folk totally enthralled me. Naomi Watts' Sally, an art gallery assistant, is a little bit in love with her boss, Greg (Antonio Banderas). He's a nice distraction from her disappointing husband, Roy (Josh Brolin), a novelist who cannot seem to finish a second book that will please his publisher like the first one did.
Roy distracts himself from Sally's badgering by wooing their new neighbor, Dia (Freida Pinto), a musician who is engaged to be married soon. Of course she puts off his advances ... at first. Sally's mum Helena (Gemma Jones) has been abandoned by her husband, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), in favor of gold-digger Charmaine (a hilarious Lucy Punch), who is less faithful than Alfie presumes.
The ostensible excuse for the title comes via the fortune teller, Cristal (Pauline Collins), to whom Helena turns in her unhappy loneliness. But everyone is looking for that little bit of fantasy, that little bit of escape from the mundanity and melancholy of their lives. And they do each find at least a little taste of it, to varying degrees, and with varying prices to pay.
It's hard to be too hard on the characters, even when they do awful things in their quests, because the wonderfully warm and engaging cast imbues these often unlikable people with genuine humanity. Though it's true, too, that the figurative punch in the stomach one character gets as the film ends — the comeuppance to a truly unforgivable act — made me laugh for its got-what-was-coming-to-ya irony as much as it elicited my pity.
Tall Dark Stranger is all about walking that fine line between tragedy and comedy, and Allen pulls it off with panache. His last films made in New York — Hollywood Ending, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion — were absolute disasters of comic mistiming, implausible characters and general inanity. But much to our relief, his move to London has reinvigorated him as a filmmaker. He is once more capturing the minutiae of modern romance, and what happens when it falls apart.