Gemma Jones in Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

Bouncing off of Shakespeare’s notion that life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, Woody Allen’s comedy You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger approaches the essential meaningless of life through two sets of interrelated characters of different generations. Gemma Jones turns to the bottle and the ministrations of a crackpot psychic after she’s dumped by her late-life-crisis-suffering husband Anthony Hopkins for younger, gold digging, low-rent sex industry worker Lucy Punch. Their daughter Naomi Watts meanwhile is in a crumbling marriage with once-promising but-now-wheel-spinning American writer Josh Brolin. Watts entertains fantasies of carrying on with her new art gallery owner/boss Antonio Banderas while Brolin looks for inspiration to Freida Pinto, the beauty in the window across the courtyard.

As each thread works itself out in Allen’s dryly comic manner, the message becomes clear: not only is life pointless, any deeper significance we might wish to attach to it is just a lie we tell ourselves to make it all bearable. If we believe the lie we’re fools and if we don’t we’re doomed to misery. A little bit of a downer, right?

This is familiar Allen territory, but it comes across a little more of a downer than usual. Stranger is not really any more bitter than Whatever Works, the 2009 film written more than 30 years before when Allen seemed to be feeling his own pending mortality a little less sharply, but somehow the point of view feels darker. While Whatever Works supposed that we live to be miserable, it also suggested that’s all the more reason we should treasure whatever nuggets of gold fate happens to throw in our paths. With You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger however, Allen and his omniscient narrator merely look down grimly on the whole business as a hopeless fallacy. Whatever Works may have been slight, but it was at least frequently funny. This time the laughs are subtler and farther between and the whole thing risks leaving a bad taste in your mouth.

Though Stranger’s caustic worldview isn’t exactly revolutionary especially for Allen, it nevertheless manages to be effortlessly entertaining almost in spite of itself. It’s polished yet it has the loose, relaxed feeling of a stock company of pros going about their business with the confidence of years of experience. While it borders on indifferent at times, the cast and crew are all too talented to lapse into carelessness.

By far, Stranger’s biggest pleasure is seeing Allen work through familiar themes and issues with a fresh cast of highly talented actors. They add a spark of energy the film might not otherwise have. Without exception the actors seize upon Allen’s naturalistic, conversational dialogue style you might mistake for improvisation if every syllable didn’t contain Allen’s familiar overriding voice.

Jones is the highlight as she amusingly shifts between tending to her own traumas and (almost) innocently wedging herself between Watts and Brolin. Punch is simultaneously disgusting and hilarious as Hopkins’ tacky new wife. Watts is also great as the increasingly desperate woman who gave up her dreams so her husband could pursue his writing and who never lets him forget it. Brolin meanwhile continues to show why he’s one of the more entertaining actors working today. His character is one of those guys who gets away with being a bit of a creep because he’s a tortured yet charming artist and a weaker actor would’ve come across thoroughly unlikable.

Less interesting but far from liabilities are Anthony Hopkins who hardly breaks a sweat as Jones’ panicked and befuddled ex-husband and Pinto who isn’t asked to do much more than be beautiful. On that score she predictably delivers, but otherwise she barely registers.

Allen’s career has been so long and prolific there’s always a temptation among critics to place his latest film in the canon. Some will dismiss this latest as “minor Allen” (as irritating a critical short cut as declaring a film a masterpiece out of the gate) and the film’s seeming effortlessness invites underestimation, but it deserves a bit deeper consideration than that. The message at its core may not be entirely fresh and it certainly flirts with an off-putting hopelessness, but it is wittily executed by terrific actors who are a pleasure to watch in every frame. On balance, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger works.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. USA 2010. Written and directed by Woody Allen. Cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond. Edited by Alisa Lepselter. Starring Gemma Jones, Anthony Hopkins, Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin, Frieda Pinto, Antonio Banderas, Lucy Punch and Pauline Collins. 1 hour 38 minutes. MPAA rated R for some language. 3.5 stars (out of 5)

4 Responses to “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010)”

  1. I enjoyed your review, Craig. You certainly have it “down” with regard to Allen’s work. With a cast like this, plus Allen’s reputation and recent output, I’ll be sure to see this one.

    I’d like to see him do something unpredictable.

  2. I would too, but he seems pretty content sticking in a certain groove with modest variations. I’m cool with that.

  3. All filmmakers should release such minor work!

  4. That comment is “minor Christian”

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