Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 14, 2011)
Starting with 2005ís Match Point, Woody Allen ran off a brief string of movies set in England. He then went to Spain for Vicky Cristina Barcelona and a return to his familiar NYC for Whatever Works before 2010ís You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, another comedy that takes place in the UK.
Since the London-based Match Point was easily Allenís best movie in years, I hoped a return to Britain might mean a return to form after the disappointments of Vicky and Works. Stranger focuses on a pair of married couples. Elderly Alfie Shebritch (Anthony Hopkins) goes through an advanced life crisis and dumps Helena (Gemma Jones), his wife of 40 years. He goes fitness nuts and tries to recapture younger days via an affair with a failed actress turned call girl named Charmaine (Lucy Punch).
In the meantime, Alfie and Helenaís daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) hits a rough spot with her husband Roy (Josh Brolin). Heís a struggling writer, and she feels frustrated that theyíve not procreated. Both find themselves caught up in their own prospective extramarital relationships. Roy develops a fixation on a beautiful girl who lives across the way (Freida Pinto), while Sally starts to fall for her handsome boss (Antonio Banderas). We follow their various attempts to enliven their lives.
What inspires the movieís quirky title? A running theme that follows Helenaís visits to a fortune teller. That concept adds a twist to Stranger that makes it a little different than the standard relationship flick, though itís not a particularly winning one. Yes, it lends an unusual tone to the film, but it also makes Helena seem like something of a flake. I understand that her pursuit of superstition stems from the collapse of her long-time relationship, so we get that sheís not really firing on all cylinders. Nonetheless, the movie paints her as both a dope and a less than sympathetic party.
Perhaps that shouldnít surprise me given Allenís tendencies. He loves to create stories that present older men who appeal to younger women, and he rarely shows any affection for aging women. Helena perfectly fits into his worldview; she comes across as such a twit and a nag that we totally understand why Alfie ditches her.
Itís tough to make a delusional elderly man who abruptly abandons his wife of 40 years come across as the likable, sympathetic one, but thatís what occurs here. Usually a role like Alfie would come across as either a delusional moron or a complete jerk. Instead, Alfie seems like the most three-dimensional personality of the bunch. Even when he misbehaves, we comprehend his decisions and feel for him. He remains haunted by the loss of his son and his own mortality.
Which contrasts with the silly, delusional Helena Ė and creates an idiotic irony at the movieís end when sheís the only one who winds up happy. Is that a spoiler? Technically yes, but the movie telegraphs its conclusion pretty obviously because a traditional story wonít - canít - reward characters as flawed as Alfie, Roy and Sally.
In a weird way, Stranger adopts the Forrest Gump worldview. Helena is the Gump of this film: she wanders through the film with blind innocence and ends up fine and dandy. The others fill in the Lt. Dan/Jenny parts: burdened with real human doubts and foibles, they choose poor paths and finish off unhappy.
Never would I have expected someone like Allen to embrace such an anti-intellectual posture. No, Helena isnít as simple as Gump; heís totally unaware of the world around him, while sheís in denial, as she embraces easy answers from a cheap psychic. The result remains the same, and itís disheartening. For the whole film, Allen makes Helena look like a moron Ė and a vaguely suicidal one at that Ė but she still comes out of the story happier than at its start.
That feels like a cheat, especially since Allen so often treats Helena as stupid and/or unsympathetic. He doesnít do much to make us care for Roy or Sally either, as theyíre actively unlikable. Like many Allen characters, theyíre terribly self-involved, and they seem more like caricatures than fleshed out personalities. In truth, they feel tacked on, as though Allen wanted to make the whole movie about Alfie and Helena but didnít have the guts to ignore younger characters for 99 minutes.
Or maybe he just didnít have enough material to flesh out any of the roles. All of them seem sketchy, and some go missing for extended periods. That makes the film disjointed and erratic; it doesnít do much to give us a rich view of its participants and their lives.
At his best, Allen can deliver insightful character pieces, but Stranger finds him far from his peak. Itís definitely not one of his worst efforts, as at least it usually lacks the obnoxious arrogance of condescension of junk like Whatever Works. (Allen canít resist the urge to make Charmaine a low-class idiot, though.) Nonetheless, Stranger finds itself burdened with uninteresting roles and a lack of purpose.