You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

It is generally held that the Woody Allen comedies in which Allen does not appear tend to be inferior to the ones in which he does — maybe because there’s usually a character who represents him, and nobody plays Woody Allen better than Woody Allen. “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” provides more evidence for this theory. Allen is nowhere to be seen, and it’s the least amusing comedy he’s made in a decade.

The film begins with an unseen narrator reminding us that “Shakespeare said life was full of sound and fury and in the end signified nothing,” so I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise when the film winds up not meaning anything, either. Shot in London, it’s a drab, half-hearted story about people who are either cheating on their partners or seeking the opportunity to do so. The grass is always greener on the other side, etc. (Shakespeare didn’t say that.) There is much comedy to be had in such a scenario, but Allen just sort of bats it around lazily, like a cat with a ball of yarn.

A matronly old gal named Helena (Gemma Jones) is still reeling after being divorced by her husband of 40 years, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), who’s having a “midlife” crisis. (“Midlife” is not accurate unless he’s going to live to 130.) Helena finds comfort in a fortune teller, Cristal (Pauline Collins), who tells her approximately what she wants to hear; she also finds comfort in liquor. Alfie, meanwhile, has taken up with Charmaine (Lucy Punch), a cockney tart at least 35 years his junior.

Helena and Alfie have a daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts), who lives nearby with her American husband, Roy (Josh Brolin). Sally works for an upscale art gallery, under the suave Greg (Antonio Banderas); Roy was once a doctor, quit to become a novelist, had great success with his first book, and is now stuck on the second. He becomes smitten with an exotic woman (Freida Pinto)across the alleyway, into whose living room window he can see from his study.

Roy, the frustrated novelist and would-be philanderer, appears to be the Woody Allen avatar. He refers to Charmaine as “a hot little number,” which is not something Roy would say but is something Woody Allen would say. There’s a promising subplot involving Roy’s theft of a book manuscript, but Allen drops it just as it’s getting interesting.

And that’s the movie in a nutshell. Everyone is seeking something that will supposedly make them happier, and nearly everyone fails to find it. Their failure isn’t instructive or entertaining, though; the film has a light, bemused tone, determined to signify nothing. Some moderately interesting characters occasionally do some mildly amusing things, but in the end no one is satisfied, least of all the audience.

C- (1 hr., 38 min.; R, two F-words, some mild sexuality -- the rating is preposterous and should have been PG-13.)