‘Stranger’ overplays melodrama and misery

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger opens to the whimsical strains of the song “When You Wish upon a Star,” seemingly matching the mysterious title of the movie and suggesting a world of untapped potential and unbridled possibility. Prolific director and actor Woody Allen has brought another piece to the stage: Set in London, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is a grim comedy that focuses on the lives of four relatives. Alfie, an aging, white-haired man played by Anthony Hopkins, has decided to abandon his wife of forty years, Helena, because “she let herself get old.” Alfie, in the midst of a mid-life crisis and afraid of his own mortality, leaves his wife in pursuit of new adventures in nightclubs and body-building gyms. Desperate and terrified of growing old alone, Helena, played by Gemma Jones, seeks out the guidance of a greedy, fortune-telling charlatan. Rather than trying to dissuade her mother from consulting with a manipulative fortuneteller, Helena’s daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) instead justifies her mother’s dependency on false advice. Sally herself is having marital problems with her husband, Roy, a struggling author who, after a promising first book, has since been unable to write anything of value.

The plot quickly becomes much more complicated and much more absurd. As both the older and younger couples are caught up in infidelity. Alfie marries an “actress” named Charmaine who is a part-time prostitute, mistaking her opportunism for love. Meanwhile, Roy daydreams not of his wife but of his new neighbor, a beautiful woman in red named Dia, played by Freida Pinto (whom audiences may recognize from her role as Latika in Slumdog Millionaire). Roy has a full view of Dia’s bedroom from his own; instead of writing his book, Roy indulges in voyeurism and spends his afternoons and nights gazing unabashedly into her window. Meanwhile, Sally finds herself attracted to her new, already-married boss, suave gallery director Greg Clemente played by Antonio Banderas.

The movie touches upon many themes often glossed over by a movie industry that focuses on the lives of the young and upcoming. All of the characters long for what they do not have, be it youth, success or love. Unsatisfied and listless, they each search for meaning and purpose in their lives. The actors do a wonderful job of depicting the desperation of their characters. At some points their desperation is comical: When Helena, with the traditional grace of a polite grandmother, asks for “a sip” of hard alcohol for the umpteenth time, Roy snaps and rebukes her, saying that she has “sipped [them] dry.” Helena’s growing delusions about her past lives and her belief in her fortuneteller also provide comic relief. During one scene, as Sally and Roy argue viciously, Helena occasionally tries to comfort Roy by assuring him that he will write another book but perhaps in another lifetime. At other points it is painful, such as when we watch Alfie delude himself that Charmaine loves him while she is buying expensive fur coats using his credit cards. The painful moments far outweigh the comedic as the movie progresses and the characters’ lives become more and more convoluted. The dramatic irony applied by Allen throughout the movie is bitingly witty and painful. Tall Dark Stranger seems to embody the idea that situations can always get worse.

Despite the supposedly close ties of family and love between the four main characters, they seem to care very little about each other, passively allowing their loved ones to live in their own delusions. Alfie hardly gives his 40-year marriage a second thought when he buys a sports car and a new wife. Sally does not try to dissuade her father from gallivanting with the “actress” who is a third of his age, even though she knows the ex-prostitute is using her father solely for his money. Neither does she try to dissuade Helena from consulting the fortuneteller, who only tells Helena what she wants to hear. Meanwhile, Roy seems more obsessed with fame and success as an author than with actually being a good writer.

While the characters are pathetic and the viewer may feel pain at their struggles, it is often hard to sympathize with them: There is a vindictive but not fulfilling sense of justice as each of the characters eventually pays for at least a few of their negligent actions. The movie closes with the same wistful song it opened with, “When You Wish upon a Star.” But after 98 minutes, the song’s tone seems to be mocking and eerie. In the end, Tall Dark Stranger is aimlessly depressing, with no uplifting moments and little to offer besides pointing out human frailty.