You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger feels like someone else tried to make a Woody Allen film. It has a lot of familiar Allen tropes and dialogue, but it never adds up to all that much.
The movie follows a bunch of characters who are dissatisfied for various reasons. First you have Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) who has just left his wife, Helena (Gemma Jones). Alfie has had a late in life crisis, so he begins working out obsessively, tanning, driving sports cars and trying to meet younger women.
Helena, distraught over the separation, turns to a fortune teller named Cristal and follows what she says like her life depended on it.
Helena doesn’t get along with her son-in-law, Roy (Josh Brolin), who rolls his eyes at her faith in the fortune teller. Roy is married to Sally (Naomi Watts), and their marriage is circling the drain. Roy went to medical school but insists he will never become a doctor. Instead he is a struggling writer, unhappy with his past novels while he waits for a word from the publisher on the fate of his third novel.
Roy begins to fall in love with a woman named Dia (Freida Pinto), and at the same time Sally begins to fall in love with her boss Greg, played by Antonio Banderas.
Alfie eventually marries a young prostitute, and Helena ultimately meets a nice man named Jonathan who shares her belief in past lives. Alfie’s relationship falls apart, predictably, and he tries to get Helena back, but she has moved on.
So while Helena begins to thrive, everyone else’s lives begin take a turn for the worse. Sally needs a loan from her mother to start her own gallery, but Helena says Cristal told her now is not the right time. Sally becomes furious and tears into her mother, ridiculing her faith in the fortune teller.
Roy, while things are going well with Dia, steals a manuscript from a friend who he believes to be dead, involved in a horrific car crash. The manuscript is very popular with the publisher, but then Roy learns that he was given the wrong information. The friend he thought was dead is in a coma (the writer), and the friend he thought was in a coma is dead. When they visit the comatose writer-friend, the mention of Roy’s book and what it’s about helps the friend show signs of coming out of the coma, inevitably leading to Roy’s downfall.
This film kind of meanders for a while before it seems to figure out where it wants to go. Woody Allen’s films often take their time, choosing character over plot, but the characters we spend so much time with just feel like collages from his previous works. Roy is another struggling writer who lusts after a younger woman, and Alfie is another older man having a late in life crisis.
Alfie’s late-life crisis reflects the marriage breakup in Interiors, and in some ways Helena’s journey feels like Marion’s journey in Another Woman.
So the whole film feels very familiar, but it doesn’t feel like much was invested in the movie. Allen’s a very talented, prolific writer, and this movie felt like a script he wrote in an afternoon and shelved it until he needed a new project to film.
It’s not the first of his films to end on a negative note for so many characters, so maybe this film is more about the end result than the journey. Allen seems to be teasing the characters, briefly allowing them to achieve what they want to achieve, only to yank it away from them at the last minute. In each case, though, it’s partially the character’s fault. Each character, outside of maybe Helena, has a scene that shows the dark side of their attitude or ways of living. Alfie’s hyper-obsessed with image, Roy is lazy and self-involved and steals a friend’s manuscript and Sally tears into her mother ruthlessly when her mother doesn’t give her more money.
Each Woody Allen film is like a sculpture, and they often look very similar. He’ll usually tweak some things so he can say “on my last sculpture I put this here and that there, so with this one I’ll move this one down here a little and raise this part up a little.” It feels like he’s remixing his scripts in films like this.
I believe Allen has said that this is a film about faith, so it is about something. But in many of his other films, the central message is alive and pulsating in most of the scenes so that when the dramatic question is set up at the beginning of the film, it feels like it is confidently answered at the end.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is really about patience, I suppose. Maybe if Roy was patient, his next novel would sell better, but he’s so concerned with the attractive neighbor that he hardly writes at all.
If Sally were patient, maybe she wouldn’t flip out on her mother after nixing the loan, and she could formulate a more stable plan to opening her own gallery, one that doesn’t require a donation from someone else.
If Alfie were more patient, he’d realize his marriage with Helena was worth sticking with. Instead, he bails, acting on an impulse of fear. He basically burns down his sturdy, wooden home and constructs a large doll house that immediately begins to tip over.
Helena is the only one who is patient, but I think the problem I have with this film is that Helena isn’t better than any of the other characters. If it’s a film about faith, then Helena would be the thesis to everyone else’s antithesis. She represents faith, and they don’t.
Except that Helena is new to the fortune teller. She only just started going after Alfie left her, and when we meet her she’s not taking the separation well. She doesn’t seem patent at all. Really, Helena is just trying on faith temporarily, and she only sticks with it because it seems to work. It’s like how someone might become a lifelong fan of the New York Yankees because they happened to be following them in a year in which they won the World Series.
So what if the fortune teller is wrong next time? Will Helena stick around?
And if the fortune teller can’t be wrong, then maybe it’s not so much faith as just having found a magician who can predict the future. It’s not faith when it’s proven to work. I don’t have faith that my car will be able to drive me to work. That’s just what it does. Now I would need to have faith in my car if I knew it was damaged and had a 50/50 shot of working.
So you need faith when there’s an equal chance life won’t work as there is that it will work. Yet everything seems to go well for Helena, and the fortune teller is just right all the time. If we go with the numbers, there should be a harsh regression to the mean coming up in which the fortune teller’s readings don’t come true.
Or not, who knows.