When the jaunty, old-timey sounding music opens on the credits of Woody Allen's latest movie, “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” my first thought is: typical Allen. And at first the movie seems to confirm the assumption that this is going to be another of his late-career rummage sales through used material. But by the time the closing credits roll and that song plays again, I realize how subtle, and at the same time how big, the difference is.
Allen often uses Django Reinhardt, Ella Fitzgerald or a similar jazz artist to open and close his films, usually a song that reinforces the predominant tone of many of his pictures, a wry melancholy that typifies both the comedies and the dramas. Allen has gutted that sentiment this time in favor of something much darker, although you don't really need to know all that to get the irony of the song used in “Stranger,” a reinterpretation of “When You Wish Upon a Star” from the Disney movie “Pinocchio.” By the time it plays the second time the joke is obvious: Most of the characters have been ruined, and those who haven't have been left dangling by cruel twists of fate.
Set in London, the movie looks at two couples, each at different stages of their lives. The story begins with Alfie (Anthony Hopkins, surprisingly good considering his recent body of work), an older man who's left his wife, Helena (Gemma Jones), in an attempt to recapture his youth. Alfie has bought himself two hot rods, one on wheels and one on stilettos (Lucy Punch), and Helena spends her time blubbering to a psychic (Pauline Collins) who provides the easily convinced woman with everything she wants to hear, including premonitions of the tall dark stranger in the movie's title.
Alfie and Helena's daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts), is having her own marriage problems with Roy (Josh Brolin), a writer whose initial minor success turned out to be a flash in the pan. They have to rely on Helena for rent money, which makes it difficult to tell her to buzz off when she's hanging around going on about her future. Meanwhile Sally develops a crush on her boss (Antonio Banderas) and Roy begins staring out the window at the sexy guitar-strumming neighbor (Freida Pinto) across the street. They may sound like the usual suspects in an Allen movie, but while it's always obvious who wrote the material, none of these folks gets off nearly as easily as those in recent, gentler Allen films.
His movies have frequently, of course, taken on the humorous intersection of human frailty and dumb luck. Good things happen to bad people in Allen movies, just as the opposite is true. There's something slightly different going on in “Stranger,” though, which seems constructed to show not just how unfair life can be, but how unsympathetic, how capricious. There's no Hollywood ending here, the title of another Allen movie.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than the plight of Brolin's writer, an inverse of the bullishly ambitious ex-president that Brolin delivered for Oliver Stone a few years ago. The character's decision, after his initial efforts fail, to cheat, at first brings great success. But it's not long before the life pulls out the rug, just as it does to most everyone. Roy, Alfie, Sally — they all get everything they wanted. Then the guy in the coma wakes up (you have to see it). Allen's last movie was called “Whatever Works.” Here the title could be “Nothing Works.”
Except a belief in the occult, and this is the biggest punch line. Helena's visits with the psychic eventually lead to an unstoppable immersion in mysticism. It denies her daughter the precious loan she needs to start a new life, but lands Helena a new man (Roger Ashton-Griffiths), a goofy, portly, happy-go-lucky success who shares Helena's fondness for sAcances. While everyone else grimaces with misery, Helena and her doddering beau have tea on a lawn. The only people who get to be truly happy, the story seems to be saying, are those who are completely delusional.
“Stranger” is Allen's most successful personal expression in years, maybe decades. Yet as triumphant as the movie is in its sum, it can be difficult to take moment to moment, even for those accustomed to the more acerbic qualities of an Allen movie. The man is out for blood this time. Makes no difference who you are. (R) 98 min.