You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, the Woody Allen film released last Friday, fits neatly into the director’s existing oeuvre. Its opening credits feature Allen’s standard white-on-black text against a jazz-infused rendition of “When You Wish Upon a Star”; the soundtrack is rich in clarinet and acoustic guitar. The picture bears a subtle yellow tinge and a hint of grain, as if it was been processed in the ‘70s. Disregarding the new title, one could have easily mistaken these first few moments as the lead-ins to Annie Hall or Hannah and Her Sisters.
Indeed, the similarity of this new Allen film to the director’s many films to come before it is enough to render it unremarkable. Its merits—most notably a cool and vintage feel, quality acting from theater giants, and witty dialogue—merely echo the strengths of past films, and therefore seem less impressive. Allen gives us an homage to himself, and it’s a little boring.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, set in the London of Match Point, Scoop, and Cassandra’s Dream, focuses on the jumbled love lives of the formerly married Helena (Gemma Jones) and Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), their daughter Sally (Naomi Watts), and her American husband Roy (Josh Brolin). In a desperate attempt to regain his youth, Alfie leaves Helena for the prostitute Charmaine. Helena overcomes the grief of her separation with the help of Cristal (Pauline Collins), her swami and fortune teller, eventually finding love with a similarly eccentric occult-bookkeeper (Roger Ashton-Griffiths). Strong-willed, ambitious Sally and unsuccessful writer Roy grow apart as they set their sights on different people—her art gallery owner Greg (Antonio Banderas) and his literal girl-next-door Dia (Freida Pinto).
As these figures chase their ideals, they begin to resemble Allen’s usual cast of characters, and even come to collectively embody Woody Allen himself. Roy’s pursuit of Dia, in particular, hints at Allen’s relationship with Mia Farrow or the romance between Elliot (Michael Caine) and Lee (Barbara Hershey) in Hannah and Her Sisters. Allen seems to value free spirits and artists above all, and thus the sweet, golden Dia falls easily for the sloppy, struggling, immoral Roy, despite the latter’s lack of redemptive qualities. Dia can’t resist Roy’s artsy, romantic vibe, just as Allen can’t resist his own.
Attempting to hold her own in a cast of veteran actors, Pinto seems almost frightened, furrowing her perfectly groomed brows and widening her deep almond eyes. Her lost looks aren’t entirely her fault, though; Allen gives her little to work with in his script (“I’ve always wanted to be someone’s muse,” Dia sighs half-heartedly). Admittedly, he does succeed in making her warm and attractive, dressing her in deep reds and caressing her glowing face with the camera for minutes at a time. She is the picture-perfect form over which he encourages us to fawn—the character version of his own movies.
After winning over the affections of this glowing Dia, Roy recognizes the emptiness of his new relationship, looking longingly through the window of Dia’s house into his old apartment to see a lingerie-clad and independent Sally, now out of reach.
As viewers, we respond to Tall Dark Stranger in much the same way. We may appreciate the superficial charm and style of Allen’s film, but in the end, we are left wanting something with real substance.