As Woody Allen's career has progressed over the past decade, I have found it increasingly difficult to tell his films apart. In the past, Allen has made wry spoofs, intelligent romantic comedies, visually stunning odes to the city he loves, homages to a bygone era rich in period detail, inventive experiments that played with his own persona, and even the odd emotionally challenging drama. In recent years, however, Allen has churned out an annual variation on a familiar morality tale, or a trifling comedy, with little evident joy or enthusiasm in his work. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is the fourth film Allen has made in London and it's yet another recycling of themes, ideas and characters from earlier, better films.
The one aspect of Allen's films that has remained at a consistently high standard has been the calibre of cast he has been able to attract to each project. Here, some fine actors do some solid work in roles that don't really stretch their abilities. Josh Brolin has a rumpled, cranky air as a struggling American writer married to Londoner (Naomi Watts), who is distracted by the beautiful woman (Freida Pinto) he spots through the window of the opposite flat. While he's occupied with that, Watts takes a job for a suave art dealer (Antonia Banderas), leading to some inevitable sexual tension, and her recently-divorced parents are both coping with their separation in different ways. Her mother (Gemma Jones) has taken solace in the words of a sham psychic (Pauline Collins), while her father (Anthony Hopkins) has married a dizzy prostitute (Lucy Punch).
Although Lucy Punch successfully brings a welcome energy and sharp sense of comic timing to her role, these characters are thin and shallow creations, existing only to be prodded down unconvincing and uninvolving plotlines that illuminate Allen's favourite themes. Of course, there's nothing wrong with a filmmaker exploring the same territory repeatedly, but they need to have something new to say on the matter, and I see nothing fresh in Allen's tale of obsession, cruel twists of fate and the meaningless randomness of life. Some characters do stupid things and get their comeuppance, some don't, and it's impossible to care about their fates either way.
Has Woody Allen actually forgotten how to make films? You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is so full of stilted conversations and awkward compositions it's embarrassing, and one scene – a locker room fight – is one of the mostly ineptly staged sequences I've seen in years. The whole film feels aimless and sluggish, with Allen letting his various plot strands drag along while relying on an omniscient voiceover to tie things together, and he shows little interest in the city surrounding his characters – You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger could take place in London, New York, Paris, Rome, The Moon or wherever else the Allen travelling road show will pitch up next. This might not be the worst film Woody Allen has ever made, but I think it might be the most tired-looking, and each new release seems to take an increasing toll on this once vital filmmaker. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger unwisely opens with Shakespeare's line that life is, "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Allen is no idiot, but his films these days do signify nothing, and when he no longer has the energy to muster up anything like sound and fury, what else is left?