Film Review: You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

Entertaining ensemble comedy from Woody Allen about personal longing and romantic entanglements.

It’s become a regrettable axiom that the better Woody Allen films these days are those in which Mr. Allen is not onscreen, attempting to seduce the younger likes of Helen Hunt or Julia Roberts or play uncle figure to Scarlett Johansson. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger doesn’t rise to the level of Allen’s two best films of the 2000s, Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but it’s a lively and funny ensemble comedy with yet another intriguing mix of stars and lesser-known talents playing deeply flawed human beings in search of love and fulfillment.

The story is set in motion when successful London businessman Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), haunted by thoughts of his own mortality, leaves his wife of 40 years, Helena (Gemma Jones). The distraught Helena seeks solace from a fortune teller, Cristal (Pauline Collins), and becomes convinced that Cristal has all the answers to her future happiness.

Meanwhile, Helena’s daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) is having marital difficulties with her husband Roy (Josh Brolin), a writer struggling with his inability to follow up the success of his acclaimed first novel. Working at home, Roy becomes obsessed with Dia (Freida Pinto), a beautiful young woman who periodically strums a guitar at the apartment window across the street. Sally, in turn, finds herself increasingly attracted to Greg (Antonio Banderas), the dashing owner of the art gallery where she works.

Alfie proves to be the most reckless romantic of all, falling for a gauche call girl named Charmaine (Lucy Punch) and asking her to marry him. Helena, too, finds new love with Jonathan (Roger Ashton-Griffiths), an unprepossessing widower who runs an occult bookshop.

With one ironic exception, none of these relationships has much of a future. Sally discovers that the mutual chemistry she thought she had with Greg is far from combustible. Charmaine’s desire for expensive baubles and material possessions threatens to bankrupt Alfie. And though Roy manages to win Dia away from her fiancé, he makes a rash professional decision that will likely have dire consequences. The title, borrowed from many a fortune teller, takes on an aptly dark hue when Roy scoffs at his mother-in-law’s naïve faith: “You will meet the same tall dark stranger that we all eventually meet.”

Allen’s script cleverly intertwines his four main storylines and gives all his actors a chance to shine. Brolin, who decided he needed to put on 40 pounds to persuasively play a failed writer, still seems too handsome for his ineffectual character, but he and Watts vividly convey the tensions of a marriage gone sour in a number of demanding long takes. Hopkins is perfect casting as an aging romantic fool, especially when contrasted with the avidly superficial object of his affection; gawky Punch is much more entertaining here than she was in a similarly unrefined role in Dinner for Schmucks. Veteran Brit actress Jones is a delight as the yearning, gullible Helena, and Slumdog Millionaire co-star Pinto is ravishing and charming as the beauty first seen in a distant window.

The film is photographed by the great Vilmos Zsigmond (The Deer Hunter, The Black Dahlia), but, at least in the print screened, it’s hard to fathom his choice of a yellowish palette which makes the actors look jaundiced.

Perhaps someday Woody Allen will again appear onscreen in a truly satisfying movie. For now, it’s comforting to know this prolific writer-director can still deliver good, insightful material for the many actors who keep lining up to work with him.