“You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” marks the 40th motion picture for writer/director Woody Allen. It’s wonderful to see the filmmaker step up with a new picture every year, but when he misses, Allen knocks himself to the ground. “Dark Stranger” represents one of the more myopic screenplays he’s ever churned out, stopping time with a film that isn’t a comedy and barely registers as a drama. I’d call it a tragedy, but the only ones truly suffering will be the paying audience, forced to endure Allen’s umpteenth variation on the false comfort provided by marriage.
In London, Roy (Josh Brolin) is a struggling writer married to Sally (Naomi Watts), a frustrated woman trying to make her art gallery dreams come true, taking a job as an assistant for curator Greg (Antonio Banderas). Helena (Gemma Jones) is Sally’s flustered mother, taking to the world of psychics for comfort after her divorce from Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), a middle-aged man looking to turn back the clock with his younger wife, ex-prostitute Charmaine (Lucy Punch). To soothe his depression, Roy turns to sensual neighbor Dia (Freida Pinto) for comfort, while Sally flirts with Greg, falling for his lavish lifestyle. For Helena, love is difficult to find, with her spiritual advisor taking over her sense of judgment, while Alfie finds his age impedes Charmaine’s voracious sex drive, watching her turn to other men for satisfaction.
Oddly billed as a comedy, I couldn’t sniff out a single laugh in “Dark Stranger,” despite laudable efforts from the cast, who feel around blindly for punchlines that are never there. It’s a blindfolded effort from Allen, who’s fishing for substance with this acrid material, as opposed to nailing a direct agenda that’s informed his finest work. “Dark Stranger” doesn’t feature a consistent story, instead it’s a series of vignettes, all tied to themes of attraction, trust, and commitment, hoisted up high by self-centered characters who spend much of the movie arguing into white noise.
The lack of bladed banter is disappointing, especially from Allen, who can throw barbs with the best of them. The exchanges in “Dark Stranger” are monotonous, draining the film of vitality as the camera lingers on repetitive ugly behavior, not the wonderfully mischievous stuff that would lend the film a stupendously lacerating identity. The screenplay drones on as the characters make awful decisions with their lives, with Allen failing to build a sinister connection that elevates the experience away from tiresome bickering. There’s one generously devious note with Roy, who screws over an infirmed friend out of desperation and perhaps spite, but that revelation comes toward the end of the picture, leaving the rest of the film to linger on nothingness.
Woody Allen has misfired grandly before, so the ineffective quality of “Dark Stranger” isn’t a complete surprise or affront. What’s shocking here is the paralytic quality of the filmmaking, which feels like it has much to share on the nature of commitment and obsession, but can barely muster the energy to keep its eyes open.