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Movie Review

You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger

Allen’s ‘Tall’ tale never rings true

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / October 1, 2010

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When a senior divorcee named Helena (Gemma Jones) visits a London psychic in the opening scene of the new Woody Allen movie, it’s fair to worry. How many mediums is this for him? When her ex-husband, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), introduces his fiancee, Charmaine (Lucy Punch), to his daughter Sally and son-in-law Roy (Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin), my heart sank. Charmaine wears skin-tight miniskirts with ornate décolletage. She looks like a Russ Meyer version of someone in a certain pop act: Viagra Spice. Did I mention she’s a hooker?

“You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,’’ Allen’s 40th feature, is shopworn to the bone. His movies are always communicating with each other. But even by the relaxed standards we apply to his recent work, like the overrated “Match Point’’ and the severely underrated “Cassandra’s Dream,’’ the new film lacks a reason. The characters each suffer frustration. Sally wants a baby, her own art gallery, and for Roy to give up writing and return to medicine. She also wants her married boss (Antonio Banderas) to want her. Roy wants the soon-to-be-married music-student beauty (Freida Pinto) who lives across the way.

The movie’s central concerns are trust, fraudulence, reversed fortune, and mortality. Alas, we will all meet a tall, dark stranger. But Allen is in too light a mood to take the film to some more sinister realm where it probably would have thrived. Roy’s sexual and literary desperation isn’t urgent, but it isn’t funny, either. Allen reveals a plot twist that could have transformed the film into a dark-comic thriller. He goes, instead, for comic irony so understated that it barely registers as comedy. There’s no tension or snap here. Allen’s creative elastic is warped.

This is a film Allen could have made in his sleep, and it appears that he has. The superb cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond contributes a light chardonnay glimmer (it accessorizes with all the tanned skin). But he can’t compensate for the movie’s logy demeanor. The narration, which begins with a quote from “Macbeth,’’ sounds as if it were recorded in a bathtub. Even in a jumble like “Vicky Cristina Barcelona’’ the acting had real energy. Punch has her moments here, nearly all of them physical, and Jones throws away her lines like a woman removing trash with white gloves, but no one manages to break through the movie’s fog, including Allen himself.

This is not the sad shame of “Whatever Works,’’ his previous movie. Some of this film actually does work, just not often or consistently enough. He’s coasting here, sketching more than fashioning or crafting. The movie’s sense of futility is all too easily extended to us. The futility of life has been a preoccupation of Allen’s for decades. This time, that pointlessness feels more like a shortcoming of execution than a matter of existentialism. We never get a critical sense from Allen that this movie was worth making in the first place. It’s a work of habit more than inspiration.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER

Written and directed by:

Woody Allen

Starring: Naomi Watts,

Josh Brolin, Gemma Jones, Lucy Punch, Antonio

Banderas, Freida Pinto,

and Anthony Hopkins

At: Kendall Square,

Embassy Waltham

Running time: 98 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (some language and garden-variety

voyeurism)

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