The greatest shame about Woody Allen’s recent dip in form, perhaps now better described as a full blown plunge, is the manner in which it has tainted his achievements. The result of recurring rashes of revisionism which erupt with each new release, some critics simply delight nowadays in debunking the “myth” of his genius, as if classic films stretching back from Take The Money & Run (1969) to Bullets Over Broadway (1994) were mere flukes.
Not that the veteran director has done much to rebuke these claims. A handful of his recent films failed to secure distribution, Scoop and The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion just two among a growing number of titles left to dwell in the commercial hell of the straight-to-DVD market. In some cases, the films being so poor, it’s arguable the studios considered them financial suicide and so withdrew them (Cassandra’s Dream fell to this fate in several countries), a reflection of his waning popularity.
However, following the success of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Allen has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts, at least securing cinema distribution for his subsequent films. Into this fray wades the arbitrarily titled You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, like a vulnerable child in a playground full of bullies, all of whom are ready to beat it up and tear it apart. As it happens, it survives fairly well but not without broken bones and a bloody nose.
The meandering narrative principally concerns Roy (James Brolin) and Sally’s (Naomi Watts sporting an uneven British accent) troubled marriage, though it splinters into a parallel storyline about her parents (Anthony Hopkins & Gemma Jones) and a fairly ludicrous sub-plot where Roy steals a friend’s novel who he falsely assumes to be dead.
Struggling to live up to the hype of his first novel and unable to take his eyes of a mysterious female guitarist living in a building opposite, Roy’s dual obsession strains his relationship with Sally who is similarly distracted by falling in love with her art gallery boss. Also having a hard time with a spouse is Viagra chomping Sir Anthony Hopkins who, growing up disgracefully, has a mid-life crisis, leaves his wife and shacks up with an escort who proceeds to cheat on him and spend his savings with total abandon. Meanwhile, his wife, her head full of psychic mumbo-jumbo, embarks on a spiritual mission to find inner-peace and happiness whilst her loved ones blindly seek the same goals in chaotic fashion.
As in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Allen favours an omnipresent narrator to fill in any structural gaps, developing character by telling the audience what they are thinking or unnecessarily explaining a specific action. It’s unclear why the director cannot trust his actors to convey these things in their performances, unless the true motivation is a lack of faith in his own writing to carry it across. Whatever the reason, it is an irksome device in a film that ultimately fails to generate interest in any of its characters and features some cringe worthy moments: Allen’s depiction of nightclub and pub life could only have come from a mind totally removed from the realities of contemporary urban life.
An air of artificiality permeates everything about YWMATDS, to increasingly irritating effect. If it’s not Watt’s bizarre accent, the obligatory twenties jazz music or Lucy Punch’s stereotyped English floozy, it’s characters’ motivations that ring hollow, their actions only serving to facilitate narrative trajectories. How Roy seduces Freida Pinto with “[Don’t] start pulling down the blinds when you undress” will forever remain a mystery.
It’s been an unglamorous fall from grace for a man who had enjoyed God-like status, especially in the period Annie Hall won an Academy Award for Best Picture in 1977. In the classic Allen era from 1969 to 1994, he wrote, starred and directed some thirty-odd films, of which the majority were at least good if not outstanding. This record alone should secure his reputation as one of America’s most important screen personalities, up there with the likes of fellow auteurs Ray, Hawks and Welles. If only Allen could return to the quality of those days, or would at least prefer to preserve his own reputation, he could bow out to a standing ovation: as it stands, he walks with his tail between his legs.