Woody Allen has become a master of the dark farce, and in “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” he adds a dash of spice so subtle your eyes start burning even as you hold your sides laughing. Presented in the episodic style of “Vicki Cristina Barcelona”, this movie takes the absurd one step further with situations that really aren’t so funny until Allen’s comic touch makes them so.
“You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” tells the story of abandoned matron Helena (Gemma Jones), her ex-husband Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), their daughter Sally (Naomi Watts), and son-in-law Roy (Josh Brolin), presenting the whole family’s foibles and peccadilloes in picturesque London. With English actress Gemma Jones, Woody Allen has found his female alter-ego: innocent, dogmatic and hilarious. Jones’s Helena is the soul of the film; she starts and ends the movie with a perfect air of wide-eyed incredulity bubbling into either hysteria or ecstasy, depending upon the advice she receives from her fortune teller, Cristal (Pauline Collins).
At the beginning of the film, Helena’s behavior is veering more toward hysterical as she visits Cristal for the first time to complain about her betrayal by husband Alfie. Helena’s face is a canvas of hurt feelings, bewilderment and an appealing, babyish charm. She is comforted by several glasses of whiskey as well as Cristal’s predictions that Helena is, in fact, surrounded by a beautiful aura, and will have a wonderful life.
The fortune teller is not as optimistic about Helena’s son-in-law, Roy, an aspiring novelist whose first book showed promise but who hasn’t had a sale since. Roy is so distracted by his inability to produce that he begins “peeping” on his neighbor, a gorgeous music student named Dia (Freida Pinto), with whom he eventually has an affair. Roy’s wife Sally is as unhappy as he is, but for different reasons; she wants a baby, but the couple can’t afford to have one since they are being virtually supported by mom Helena.
Sally, who has a background in art, gets a job at a high class art gallery, owned by Greg (Antonio Banderas), and finds herself falling for him. There are intimations, early on, that the debonair Greg might be likewise interested. (One of the best romantic scenes takes place in a car after Sally and Greg go to the opera together—that perfect dance of “to kiss or not to kiss”; Woody Allen is a virtuoso at this type of relationship awkwardness.) But Sally’s hopes are dampened when she finds out Greg is involved with an artist, actually one of Sally’s friends. Sally, in reaction, decides to open her own art gallery with another friend of hers (and Helena’s money).
Meanwhile Helena’s ex-husband Alfie, an upper-crust and wealthy Brit, has been re-inventing his life with a curvy ex-prostitute named Charmaine (Lucy Punch), whom he decides to marry after two months. Charmaine, (who vies with Helena for “Most Outrageous Comic Character”), slurs her speech, rolls her eyes and hips invitingly but does not, however, prove to be a faithful wife. After he discovers this, Alfie invites ex-wife Helena to lunch and suggests they get back together. But Helena has been busy on the romantic front too, and has found herself an aging New Age bookseller, Jonathan (Roger Ashton-Griffiths), whom she hopes to marry if the couple can get Jonathan’s dead wife’s approval.
So Alfie is stuck with Charmaine, his promiscuous young wife, who wants to stay together and tells Alfie she is pregnant with his child. Alfie, in response, promises they will get a DNA test when the baby is born to determine their future. (Quite a comment on the relationship of older men and young women, Woody—ouch!)
The movie closes with a twist so unexpected and delicious it would be a shame to give it away completely—suffice it to say that novelist Roy, desperate to sell a book, steals the manuscript of a friend whom he mistakenly thinks has died—with devastating results. The final episodes include a shot of Roy’s face as he realizes his little scheme isn’t going to work (a mixture of shock, embarrassment and guilt that epitomizes his immaturity)—-and a scene with Helena and her boyfriend Jonathan in a garden, when Jonathan tells Helena that his dead wife has indeed consented to the proposed marriage. Helena and Jonathan partake of a pleasant moment of camaraderie as they share their beliefs in past-life experiences—he, as a simple peasant, Helena, as Joan of Arc.
Woody Allen has evolved through broad comedy (“Sleeper”) to New York angst (“Annie Hall”) to an almost misanthropic depiction of contemporary culture. “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” is a brilliant amalgam of everything that’s gone before—a soufflé of funny failed human expectations served up with an unexpected savor of British salt.