‘Comedy just pokes at problems, rarely confronts them squarely. Drama is like a plate of meat and potatoes, comedy is rather the desert, a bit like meringue.’
The song “When you wish upon a star” is being played as the credits roll for Woody Allen’s latest, called, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. The prophesy that the title of the film holds is immediately given a context as we witness the first meeting between a distressed Helena (Gemma Jones) and a fortune teller, Cristal (Pauline Collins). Helena’s husband of forty years divorces her, causing her to lunge into deep depression and to attempt suicide. When medicines fail to calm Helena ‘s nerves, her daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts), suggests she meet a quack soothsayer. Helena is immediateltly allured by the illusions of the world of astrology and predictions about the future, highlighting the central theme of the film – the necessity of delusions in order to cope with life. Woody Allen confronts both, the characters and us with the tall dark stranger that we lust for -our ideal romantic interest and the one we fear the most as well- death. The auteur does so in his hallmark style of sharp satire in the garb of romantic comedy. His comedy pokes fun at marriage, love and death.
The narrator, borrowing from Shakespeare, declaims, as the opening song fades off that life is full of sound and fury and in the end signifies nothing. One is left wondering if this is a metacritical comment about cinema itself, about how a large cinematic apparatus is brought together to produce meaning in a film that either eludes the audience or is wholly senseless. However, coming back to its implication in the diegetic realm of this film, much “sound and fury” is produced by the characters of the film who explore the meaning in their lives through the one stranger each of them encounters respectively. This comic search for meaning, in the film is informed by a subconsciously awareness that eventually everything is meaningless in this fragile existence thus the only thing possible is delusion as distraction. Roy (Josh Brolin), the writer suffering from a writer’s-block finds distraction in his neighbour who he imagines as a muse, Sally, his wife who works as a gallery assistant turns her attenion to her boss, Helena uses the sothsayer Christi to escape her breakdown at being deserted by her husband and her husband Alfie’s new wife, Charmaine (Lucy Punch) finds her gym mate to be a sexual diversion.
‘More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to dispair and utter hopelessness. The other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.’
-Woody Allen, My Speech to the Graduates
In his prolific career lasting almost five decades, Woody Allen has, through his characters, made his viewers relook at morality and the ideal of a romantic relationship that does not always end in a ‘happy ever after’. Allen’s talent is that within the genre of a romantic comedy he manages to question the very idea of the subject and genre. The realm of the erotic is, for the filmmaker, beyond judgement and social regulations. His idiocyncratic, often lunatic characters display foibles and fears, hopes and aspirations that are eerily familiar. Woody Allen, who has been heavily influenced by Ingmar Bergman, tells a comic tale with an existential moral. The romance between Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) and his ex hooker wife, Charmaine is precariously prerched on the viagra pill that Alfie has to take to delude himself about his age. Roy is seduced by the guitar playing lady in the window across the lane from him, abandons his wife and moves in with her, only to find himself (in a scene that is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Rear Window) leaching from the window of his new house at his wife undressing. Woody presents romance with its greyish-blackish tones, it’s funnily unfathomable contorted ways, its blatant errors of judgement, its selfish pursuit of self interest. This however does not mean that Woody Allen’s film is any means dark and cynical. He gives to us a very light hearted represenentation of the ‘sound and fury’ of domestic vicissitude.
‘No one can lead us to the edge of the cosmic abyss like Woody, and then hit us with a joke that somehow makes it all easier, and even more memorable.’
− Mark T. Conrad et al., Woody Allen and his Philosophy
One may find that in You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, the humour’s not as slick but it does hold a few good jests. The film’s not an Annie Hall(1977) or Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask (1972) in terms of its wit or the laughs it elicits but the film manages to stay afloat on the imbicile actions of the always on the edge characters of the film. Some great performances bring to fore the humour in the silent moments such as the scene in which Alphie is waiting for the Viagra to take effect while his sexy wife is sprawled on the floor, wondering why the man is not seduced yet. Helena’s romance with a practitioner of occult arts and the former’s pronouncement that she was Joan of Arc in her last life are comic situations in the film.
However, the characters don’t move much beyond being lunatic and the supposedly funny exchanges sometimes seem worn out because they are too melodramatic and there is little room for subtlety left. Woody Allen brings out all the formulaeic pieces to fix a comedy but forgets that one cannot roll with laughter at a funny one cracked last winter. His gags fall short, his plot makes very feeble efforts to break out of predictability and the tried and tested and the end lacks a build up. However, the auteur, with his years of experience manages to prevent his slightly wobbly film from falling flat.
What perhaps makes Woody Allen’s romantic comedy different from the contemporary Hollywood cinema being produced within the same genre is that it is not a frothy icecream. It is in fact mocking the whole idea of holding hands and walking into the sunset or growing old together on two adjacent wheel chairs. The filmmaker wants to jerk us awake from this delusional dream to show us the often undulated, sometimes tricky and once in a while dark passages that may need to be covered in the journey of what we understand call love and life.
Director and writer: Woody Allen
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin