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YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER

Anthony Hopkins as Alfie, with his PYT

After 2008′s VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA and 2009′s WHATEVER WORKS, Woody Allen’s latest release, YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER marks a return to the classic tragicomic films about couples in flux that he’s best known for. You know the ones I’m talking about. Like HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986) or CELEBRITY (1998), YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER is a story about a man who seeks refuge from his lifeless marriage in an exciting stranger. Sally (Naomi Watts) is married to Roy (Josh Brolin), a struggling, some might say failed writer who spends his days gazing out his bedroom window at his gorgeous new neighbor, Dia (Freida Pinto). Sally is too absorbed with her new boss, Greg (Antonio Banderas), to notice her husband’s wavering attentions. Their bickering is frequently interrupted by Helena, Sally’s mother, who drops by to impart the wisdom gained from her weekly psychic readings, her only source of comfort after her husband Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) divorced her after 40 years and married Charmaine (Lucy Punch), a blonde, gum-smacking actress/call girl.

In typical Allen form, the story is told with the help of a narrator, who introduces the film with the famous line from “Macbeth,” the one about how life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, which could really be the opener for any of his films. After we’re introduced to the main characters we watch them spin around and make decisions both good and bad, but mostly bad. The bulk of the film is concerned with the decision-making process, which is less interesting than the decisions themselves. Unfortunately, the film ends just as the characters stop spinning around like crazy and make up their minds what to do, which is when things really start to pick up. For the whole film we’ve been stuck in the mire with these characters, side by side as they sort out their moral dilemmas and cosmic quandaries, and just as we’re about to be rewarded for our patience with the various results of all the psychodrama, the credits roll.

A few notable performances help keep things fresh. Antonio Banderas shines in his supporting role and Lucy Punch’s ditsy trophy wife takes cues from Mira Sorvino as the ambitious porn star in MIGHTY APHRODITE (1995), but Anthony Hopkins is the surprising stand out with his understated, humanistic approach to the newly bachelored Alfie. Hopkins, best known for period pieces and character roles like Hannibal Lector, took advantage of the opportunity to play a regular guy dealing with everyday problems. When he’s flashy or aggressive, it’s in the most passive way. We see him riding around in a sports car, but his smile is less full of gloating and more full of a calm, inner peace. His slick new apartment is designed to the hilt, but he still wears staid, Polo pullovers and is nervous around women. When his new wife sleeps around and drives him into debt, he doesn’t yell at her or even put up much of a fuss; He’s resigned. He’s made his bed and now he must lie in it.

If Allen had the film to do again he couldn’t go wrong by divvying up the screen time more equally between Brolin and Hopkins. Brolin does the disheveled writer well enough (though frankly some of his interactions with Dia would put any girl, especially a confident, attractive one, on creep-alert) but hardly do we see anything new out of the age-old story of the older man with the young gold digger, and Hopkins brings something unexpected and refreshing to the cliché. Watching Sally, Roy and Helena flail about while they sort through their relationships grows tiresome; Sally and Helena especially are one-trick-ponies with a single gripe they continually recycle, but it’s fascinating to watch how Hopkins reacts to the twists his ill-fitting new life throws him. In the end, everyone meets a stranger, though not necessarily tall or dark, and the narrator chimes in again to remind us of Shakespeare’s truism. However, all the sound and fury could signify something, if only Allen chose not to end things prematurely.