Woody Allen’s 40th feature film, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, begins and ends with Shakespeare’s mordant line, “[Life] is a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Macbeth speaks this line after learning that Lady Macbeth has hanged herself and that their dream of dynasty will soon end in a nightmare of bloodshed. Nonetheless Macbeth throws himself into the battle and dies with the dignity of a warrior.
Those of us who find Allen in all his films—it’s like the children’s-book series Where’s Waldo—will imagine the quotation somehow applies to him. The line is recited in the film by the narrator of the tale while in the background someone sings the Disney song “When You Wish Upon a Star.” The unlikely juxtaposition sets the mood of the film and goes to the core of what sustains our interest in Allen: existential misery hand in hand with childlike joy.
Allen is now too old and wizened for the childlike joy, and since his notorious scandal his comedy grates when he performs it himself. Now he distributes the task to his whole ensemble of characters, but diehard fans still recognize the Woody lines—there’s Waldo!
Without his presence on the screen it is easier to forgive Allen’s sins, and if he keeps making films like You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger perhaps he will win back some of the old fans who felt betrayed by him. That will not be easy; most of the top critics panned You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, complaining that there were no laugh-out-loud jokes, that the narrative went nowhere, and that the whole project, except for the marvelous cast, lacked real ambition.
Perhaps they were measuring Allen by his classic films of the past when he made us roar with laughter and think at the same time. If so, the critics are missing a promising change: this is a softer, gentler Allen who in his 70s has left New York behind, and is composing chamber music rather than symphonies. One can recognize old strains of Allen’s melodies combined in new, delightful ways. His move to London and his use of British actors also adds a dimension of European refinement that one would have supposed antithetical to his comic creativity. But it lends something unexpected, a sophisticated charm, to his films.
Allen’s early films all seemed to have been composed on his analyst’s couch; they reflect what are known in the trade as “positive transference” and “therapeutic alliance.” But in Allen’s first post-scandal film, Deconstructing Harry, the psychoanalyst becomes the hateful enemy—sicker and angrier than her patients and popping pills to calm her own nerves. In a casting decision for the cognoscenti, he chose Kirstie Alley—in real life a psychiatry-hating Scientologist—to play the part.
Allen’s apparent disenchantment with psychoanalysis continues in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. The abandoned wife Helena (Gemma Jones, in a brilliant performance) attempts suicide after her husband Alfie (yes, Anthony Hopkins) leaves her to recapture his youth and chase younger women while stoked up on Viagra. Pill-pushing psychiatrists and unfeeling psychotherapists have been of no help to Helena.
Her “slough of despond” has driven her unhappily married daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) to the limit, and so in desperation she sends her mother to a fortuneteller, Cristal (Pauline Collins), who will provide her with reassuring promises of happiness: “you will meet a tall dark stranger.”
One senses a more forgiving and accepting conception of the human condition, as though Allen’s ressentiment has dissipated.
The psychoanalyst who was so central to Allen’s early films now appears as an obvious charlatan, a fortuneteller. But Cristal is more psychologically minded than many therapists, and, with a little whiskey and blarney guided by intuition, the fortuneteller gives Helena the comfort she never got from the professionals and restores her self-confidence. If Allen is having a long personal dialogue with his audience, as I believe he is, then this substitution is a meaningful statement to us. It translates, “I have given up on psychoanalysts and psychiatrists, but I acknowledge that we need someone like them in whom we can believe and trust and from whom we can seek consolation. We tortured human beings need our illusions.” Allen made this point about illusions in a marvelous joke he told at the end of Annie Hall (1977):
This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, ‘Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.’ And, uh, the doctor says, ‘Well, why don’t you turn him in?’ The guy says, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.’
Allen’s “eggs” are the necessary illusions; his joke is a parable about our need to believe in something, and about his own artistic project of creating and making fun of our illusions.
Helena certainly needs something to believe in. She is the refined, dotty British version of a schlemiel, the person to whom everyone—including her daughter, son-in-law Roy (Josh Brolin), and husband—condescends. But, empowered by her fortuneteller, Helena prospers while those who condescend to her come a cropper.
Helena does not, however, really meet a “tall dark stranger.” Her newfound soul mate, Jonathan, who runs an occult bookstore, is played by the British character actor Roger Ashton-Griffiths. Ashton-Griffiths, an erstwhile opera singer, is short, bald, and portly, but, like Allen’s films, in the end quite charming. Jonathan adores Helena and shares her new sustaining spiritualism. The transformed Helena, encouraged by the fortuneteller and Jonathan, also comes to believe she has had past lives including—since she fancies things French—as Joan of Arc. Her self-esteem is overflowing, and she will not grow old alone. Past lives and fortunetellers are the eggs of this film and provide the same kind of nourishment. There are other intriguing plots if you are willing to savor the familiar strains of Allen’s melodies and enjoy the gentle, if still ironic, humor. Each of the characters, like Helena, is discontented with his or her life and hopes to find love with someone new. But unlike her they live in the real world without illusions, and just when they think they have found what they seek an ironic fate intervenes.
In some of his earlier films (such as Deconstructing Harry), one had the sense that Allen despised his characters and was getting his revenge. In You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger one senses a more forgiving and accepting conception of the human condition, as though Allen’s ressentiment has dissipated.
In this regard a word must be said about Alfie and his call girl, Charmaine. There is a bit of Allen in Alfie, and Hopkins carries it off, proving his unexpected dimensions as an actor by taking on the role. Alfie wakes up one day feeling that he is close to the abyss of old age and death. He begins his rejuvenation in the gym and dumps Helena. But instead of becoming the playboy he imagined, he finds himself alone in the world of the young and marries Charmaine, played by the previously unknown Lucy Punch. Punch is the frosting on the cake of this wonderful cast. She plays the most delightful and lovable bimbo ever seen on the big screen. She bankrupts Alfie with her fur coats, she is unfaithful to him with a man who beats him up, and through it all she projects a beguiling spirit of lotus-like innocence. When the disconsolate Alfie confronts her with her betrayal, her rejoinder is that she is pregnant, perhaps with the son he always wanted. But how will he know if it’s his child? Her answer, of course, written by Allen, is, “Does it matter?” It may not be laugh-out-loud funny, but in this new Woody Allen film it is endearing.
The scenes of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger fit together in a brilliantly edited mosaic of irony. Each character contributes to the twist: the compassionate Woody Allen. The film will not bring the younger generation of Tarantino fans into the theaters, but perhaps the forgiving Allen can renew his dialogue with the large audience that once treasured it.