“It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
A narrator uses this Shakespeare quote to open Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, which is at great pains to make a point about how there is no point to be made. For any film, this would be a spectacularly bad premise. For a Woody Allen film, it’s downright fatal. Here we are, being drawn into a story about the complexities of relationships, only to realize at the end that none of it has amounted to anything, that the whole thing is an exercise in unnecessary character development and storylines that go nowhere. If it were done artfully, say in a labyrinthine David Lynch dreamscape, perhaps then it could be excused. But Allen makes the dread mistake of presenting it realistically, meaning we will be tricked into investing in the plot. If I may be so bold as to borrow another Shakespeare quote, “And oftentimes excusing of a fault doth make the fault the worse by the excuse.”
Even now, I’m shaking my head in disbelief. What was Allen thinking? How could the man behind such wonderful films as Annie Hall, Love and Death, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona be the same man responsible for this mess? Rarely has a director cheated his audience so cruelly, so forcefully, so unapologetically. What exactly is the point in making a pointless film? To show that life has no meaning? Even if such a thing is true, I believe with every fiber of my being that there are far more constructive ways of sending this message; one cannot simply end ninety minutes of character-driven storyline by leaving everything unresolved.
I will dutifully describe the plot for the sake of providing you with information. You should know, however, that it’s a futile move on my part, since the ending makes it clear that none of it counts for anything. It’s divided into a series of interconnecting subplots, all of which feature characters stuck in bad relationships with the wrong people. In London, we meet the neurotic and irrational Helena (Gemma Jones), who, since getting divorced, spends all her time paying visits to a crackpot fortune teller. This, in turn, leads her into the arms of an occult bookstore owner (Ashton Griffiths), a widower intent on contacting his dead wife via a séance. Her ex-husband, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), became consumed with recapturing his youth and made it his mission to live a healthier lifestyle, move into a contemporary apartment, and hang out with much younger people. He has since met, and plans to marry, a tacky prostitute named Charmaine (Lucy Punch), who’s less than half his age and isn’t in it for anything other than his money.
Meanwhile, Alfie and Helena’s daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts), has a good eye for art and wants to someday open her own gallery. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have the money for it and must once again rely on her mother for a loan. She must also contend with her American husband, Roy (Josh Brolin), who’s a trained doctor but gave up on medicine in order to become a writer. He managed one successful novel, although all other attempts at writing have failed; he’s currently awaiting a response from a publisher regarding his latest manuscript. As he sits on pins and needles, he catches the eye of Dia, his neighbor across the street (Freida Pinto), who always wears red and provocatively undresses in front of her window. She’s already engaged, but it seems she’s flattered by Roy’s flirtatious advances. As it so happens, Sally is attracted to her boss, an art gallery owner named Greg (Antonio Banderas), who’s having marriage problems of his own.
As you can see, what we have here is a series of complicated issues. What infuriates me is that Allen uses this not as an opportunity to intelligently explore themes of connectivity and meaning; this time around, the characters have no purpose and their situations have no significance. If he tells us up front that it makes no difference what happens and who it happens to, then for the love of God, why bother developing the characters in such detail? Why bother making the movie at all? Essentially, we’ve already been told that absolutely nothing will be gained by seeing it.
It doesn’t help that just about every actor is horribly miscast, which is disappointing since they’ve all proven themselves worthy in other films. Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins, and Antonio Banderas are particularly ill fitting, none able to convey the emotional turmoil of Allen’s script or even capture the basic conversational style of his dialogue. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is a grave miscalculation – a strained, unfocused, incomplete, unpleasant endeavor that elevates nihilism to stratospheric heights. It isn’t often a movie so dramatically shoots itself in the foot; to place all emphasis on pointlessness, for both the story and the characters, is to make it impossible for an audience to connect with it. Woody Allen is a gifted filmmaker, which only makes this movie’s failure that much more confounding.