Blu-ray Review: You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010)

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Before his stream-of-conscious voice-recording segues from a list of things that Woody Allen's Isaac feels make life worth living in 1979's Manhattan, our onscreen character dreams up a plot idea that sounds a lot like the type of movies made by Isaac's offscreen alter-ego, writer/director Woody Allen.

Yet regardless of the fact that Manhattan's Isaac theorizes that his story should take place in Manhattan, his idea about people “who are constantly creating unnecessary neurotic problems for themselves 'cause it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about the universe,” has been one of Allen's main cinematic preoccupations throughout his entire career in works shot in New York and abroad.

Likewise, whether this same basic premise has taken the shape of the comedic or the dramatic to the romantic or the tragic and all of the various shades in between, writing what he knows and what obsesses him has served Woody Allen well for more than four decades, resulting in some landmark achievements as well as some less than stellar productions.

As a great fan of his intelligent, multi-layered, ensemble pieces, although I've often said that a “weak” or even a – thankfully rare – downright “bad” Woody Allen movie is better than most “average” mainstream Hollywood fare, there have been a few times where my belief has proved quite false and this is definitely one of them.

Thankfully of course and regardless of whether or not you take his life-affirming breezy comedy Vicky Christina Barcelona into consideration, nobody would think of classifying the famously pessimistic neurotic Allen as a Pollyanna “glass is half full” optimist, which is why his films often feel so lifelike.

Moreover, even when he produced two tragicomic masterpieces in the existential opus Crimes and Misdemeanors or his riveting play on both An American Tragedy and A Place in the Sun with Match Point, there still seemed to be a generous spirit at work in his attitude toward the characters, audience and the story he was telling.

However, although it isn't intended to be as bleak as the underrated Cassandra's Dream nor quite as overtly cynical as Celebrity or Deconstructing Harry, the decision to filter his “everything is meaningless” mantra through the guise of a sunny, light, bright British gentle comedy makes You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger particularly joyless.

This being said, unlike the way we'd inevitably get lost in the language of his scripts in the past, since this isn't the case here, it's the beauty of the images in Sony's technically superb Blu-ray that best captures our attention.

More specifically, the visual scope attempts to make up for what the film lacks, adding depth to the characters by giving every single one their own unique, distinct color scheme, offering more subtext to the individuals than what was merely on the page to help the plot along in a useless but noble effort.

Likewise, although he's repeatedly gone to this well before in many variations of the same preoccupation with self-created neurotic drama that's flooded his earlier work, this is the first time that I've ever gotten the sense that – more than simply being out of touch (which has been evident yet easily overlooked in the past) – Woody Allen either doesn't know or doesn't care that he's just rewritten the same stuff he's done repeatedly.

Like a musician that's played the same pitch-perfect piece so many times that we finally (and heartbreakingly) realize that their touch on the keys is audibly lacking the fiery passion it had once possessed, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger begins on the wrong note and never manages to get in tune from start to finish.

Perhaps in an attempt to distract us that the ultimate moral of the story is the same one it's always been, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger dresses it up, boldly book-ending the movie with a Macbeth quotation, arguing that in the end, all of the sound and fury of his characters will signify nothing.

Thus, unlike Gemma Jones's character in Tall Dark Stranger we don't need a fortune teller to tell us what's going to happen next since Allen begins the film with the worst fortune cookie ever in illustrating that they'll have “nothing” even if they try. How's that for lighthearted British humor?

Predictably, warning us about the unhappiness that will follow does little to entertain as we watch the cast of characters portrayed by the talented Josh Brolin, Naomi Watts, Anthony Hopkins, Gemma Jones, Antonio Banderas and more all chase their dream, discovering that once and/or if they're lucky enough to get it, they'll likely wind up even more miserable than they already are. 

So even though the song remains the same from back when Allen's Isaac came up with the refrain in Manhattan, we realize Allen's taken us on a long sad journey over three decades to a land where a character like Isaac doesn't even bother making a list of the simple pleasures that make life worth living.

The sole saving grace of the movie arrives in the form of one brilliant twist revolving around the fate of a manuscript that crosses Brolin's path that should've been developed into its own unique film – whether bona fide comedy or tragedy.

Unfortunately that one strand of a much larger tapestry is the only "new" thread as Stranger simply recycles characters, dilemmas, jokes and subplots from pictures new and old minus the heart, personality and slightest possibility that something we haven't seen before at least a dozen times in Allen's oeuvre will occur.

Obviously, the last thing that you'd want to think of when contemplating Allen's incredible body of work is that in the end it means nothing. Nonetheless, by playing fast and loose with the same material, I fear that viewers won't bother to take a cue from Isaac and look past the neurosis on parade to make a list of the masterful titles well worth watching (and analyzing and discussing).

But as a fan, I do urge you to do just that since over the course of roughly fifty years of largely successful filmmaking, you're bound to meet quite a few “strangers” you'll fall in love with along the way.

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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.