Dunces and dragons
An unfulfilled artist, usually a writer, suffers from artistic block. He seeks comfort in the arms of a woman other than his wife. A beautiful young girl on the brink of marriage calls it off because of an affair. There is often a prostitute and a muse, and everyone is afraid of dying. They are all foolish, especially the women.
I have just described the outline for a new Woody Allen film, based on his last five releases. They don't all contain each element, but each appears in more than one film. So do some of the actors.
Penelope Cruz was the vengeful wife of the painter played by Javier Bardem in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008); she turned up as a hooker in To Rome with Love, from last year. Allen appeared in that film as an unfulfilled opera director, who found a muse of sorts in a man who could sing gloriously but only in the shower.
Owen Wilson was the unfulfilled writer in Midnight in Paris (2011), leaving a shrewish Rachel McAdams to hobnob with Hemingway and Picasso in the 1920s. She was betrayed for another era, as well as another woman (Marion Cotillard).
Josh Brolin has the writer-who-can't-write role in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, made in London in 2010. Naomi Watts is the wife he cheats on, and Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) is a beautiful exotic stranger he watches across the courtyard in her London flat. She plays guitar in a red dress, a dusky temptress. Antonio Banderas runs an art gallery where Sally (Watts) is his assistant. It's a set-up borrowed from Hitchcock's Rear Window, except that Roy (Brolin) has a broken talent rather than a broken leg. His first novel was acclaimed but he can't finish his second.
Sally wants a child and a husband who brings home the bread, not this sponging layabout. Her mother, Helena (Gemma Jones), supports them when she's not seeing a fraudulent psychic (Pauline Collins).
Helena tries in vain to understand the end of her marriage to Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), who woke up one morning stricken by fear of old age. He dumped her, bought a sports car, had his teeth whitened and took up with a young hooker called Charmaine (Lucy Punch), who's taking him to the cleaners.
This is Woody Allen's fourth London film since 2005. The others have been made in continental Europe, except for Whatever Works (2009), which was set in Manhattan. Allen has spent most of the decade in exile, turning his back on Hollywood and American hypocrisy, especially where it concerns sexual morality. Vicky Cristina Barcelona was a sullen attack on prudish American girls; Midnight in Paris and To Rome with Love continued the barrage.
Allen has been making films in the places that still love him - particularly France, Spain and Italy, where his audiences could not care less who he sleeps with. The problem is that the films have been vastly uneven and unsatisfying. Midnight in Paris was a big hit and a charming film, but who really loved Scoop (2006) or Cassandra's Dream (2007)?
The fact that Tall Dark Stranger has taken more than two years to reach our shores tells us something about the film's problems, although it is a better movie than To Rome with Love, which opened in Australia recently. By better, I mean that it is weightier, not necessarily funnier.
If forced to choose, I prefer Woody the dramatist to Woody the wisecracker. The Roman outing was dominated by the latter, at the expense of the former. In this one, Allen concentrates on character. The humour comes organically from situation, rather than one-liners.
Working again with the great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, Allen delivers some long and gliding scenes in which the camera moves room to room without a cut, and the actors have been told what to do and where to do it. That's a step up from To Rome, which felt like Allen directed it by phone.
This London film is about the necessity of illusions as a defence against death. That's what it says in the press notes but, actually, the film is about how awful people are. Woody's misanthropy is off the leash again.
Brolin's writer is a talentless, feckless, ruthless wastrel and corrupter, which makes you wonder what his wife and girlfriend, Dia (Pinto), see in him. Gemma Jones, as the jilted wreck, is pitilessly frowsy.
Hopkins gives us a polished turn as a tanned fool, munching Viagra and sucking the life out of his buxom bimbo while she empties his wallet. Lucy Punch, almost stealing the movie, fits into a long line of grasping, unattractive women in Allen's recent films. There's plenty of truth and humour in these characterisations but not much pity.
YOU WILL MEET A
TALL DARK STRANGER
Directed by Woody Allen
Rated M, 98 minutes