In Woody Allen’s perverse and fascinating “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” set in London, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), a grizzled and barrel-chested plutocrat, perhaps seventy years old, leaves his wife of forty years, Helena (Gemma Jones), and marries what used to be called a floozy—the fun-loving, alarmingly mobile hooker Charmaine (Lucy Punch), who quickly restores Alfie’s sex life and empties his bank account. After a strenuous whirl of several months, the two of them stare blankly at each other in their barely furnished white-on-white apartment. The place has a nice view of the Thames but resembles nothing so much as a new hospital wing.
The rejected Helena, meanwhile, sipping Scotch, sherry, and whatever else is handy as she goes about London, falls under the sway of a fortune-teller, who informs her that she is receiving enormous waves of positive energy. Not only that: Helena will soon meet someone swell. Alfie’s and Helena’s daffy, all-too-human attempts at therapy and renewal establish the framework of stupid behavior and adultery that follows: their unhappily married daughter,
Sally (Naomi Watts), delicately flirts with her married boss, a debonair art-gallery owner named Greg (Antonio Banderas), while her surly husband, Roy (Josh Brolin), once a promising novelist, suffers the rejection of his new novel and starts an affair with a young woman (Freida Pinto) he sees in a window across the street. In this movie, no one is satisfied with what he or she has; everyone attempts to get more and, with one ironic exception, winds up with less. In the past, Allen made movies that echo Chekhov and Bergman, and this is a pass at Balzac: the world is ruled by egocentricity and meanness, and much of what we do approaches grubby comedy.
The picture moves swiftly and surely, with people arguing, seducing, complaining, separating, reuniting. At times, we seem to be watching the many limbs of a single organism, all of them in continuous movement. Allen hasn’t gathered together so many disgruntled people in years. Much of the writing is good, and the acting is superb, but the constant wrangling wore me out at times. I missed the physical beauty—the amber glow and the sweet sexiness—of “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”
In this movie, as in “Match Point” and “Cassandra’s Dream,” a certain London sourness and irritability takes over. Crabby as “Tall Dark Stranger” is, however, it’s admirably staged and edited, with several sequences that are breathtaking, especially a prolonged shot in which Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin, and Gemma Jones tear at one another, passing in and out of a living room, their voices interwoven like the phrases of an agitated piece of music. The shot has the sustained intensity and the compositional intricacy of Robert Altman’s best work.
The men come off far worse than the women. In order to play the loutish Roy, who becomes increasingly crass and duplicitous as the movie goes on, Brolin sports what is possibly the worst haircut since Javier Bardem’s pageboy in “No Country for Old Men.” Brolin, with his bulky, rectangular face, and his hair both hanging over his forehead and standing straight up (you’ve got to see it to believe it), looks like a clumsy overgrown boy. He gives a brave performance, as does Anthony Hopkins, who has played tough men and monsters but never a woman-dazzled sap like Alfie.
Hopkins’s obvious intelligence makes Alfie’s last grasp at sexual happiness pitiable and touching—even a man this shrewd, we think, is capable of falling for a woman a third his age. As it turns out, shrill, dopey Charmaine isn’t entirely cynical; she’s rather sweet, and the lanky Lucy Punch lets her big body collapse in dismay when Charmaine thinks that she has let Alfie down.
Allen the moral rationalist can’t help pointing out that there isn’t any connection between virtue and happiness, intelligence and satisfaction: Watts’s Sally, the smartest and most decent of the characters, constantly runs into trouble, while her suggestible, alcoholic mother floats through disasters like a butterfly in an earthquake.
Jones, one of the greats of the English stage and still a vibrant beauty, gives the batty Helena a soft face and a rude directness that startles us with its aggression. In touch with spiritualism’s promise of a future life, she moves through this one with the maddening euphoria of those on whom nothing registers but their own happiness. Allen almost overuses Jones’s quivering brilliance. He brings her back again and again. He can’t get over his bitter amazement that such a person as Helena could not only exist in a difficult world but, swathed in idiocy, flourish.
Great review: I agree with it, all of it and couldn't have said it better.