Of all the prolific filmmakers that have ever lived, Woody Allen is second only to Rainer Werner Fassbinder. He has directed over 40 films since his career began in 1967, and Allen’s fans agree that very few are sub-par. Of course, with any great director, the autumn years tend to show a noticeable decline in quality, and certainly this can be said for Allen. But his newest film, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, may be one of his best.
It all begins when Anthony Hopkins’ character decides to break up his marriage. The reason, as he states later, is that his wife got old. How foolish of her. His wife then seeks solace with a clairvoyant, who tells her the titular phrase and also presses upon her the idea of multiple lives and reincarnation. Her daughter’s (played by Naomi Watts) marriage is also failing, as there are constant fights between her and her husband (Josh Brolin). Brolin plays a failed writer working on a second book but distracted by the sexy woman in the opposite window. Watts’ character has just gotten a job at an art gallery where she begins to fall for her boss (Antonio Banderas).
Like several of his recent films, this one has a certain elegance. Allen isn’t exactly making upper-class comedies, the focus is never on anyone’s wealth, but the characters are graceful and eloquent, almost as if he is channeling Lubitsch (Heaven Can Wait, Trouble in Paradise). Here, we have several relationships that are gradually torn apart, with each character looking outward for their rightful “tall dark stranger.” Unfortunately, under the influence of pervasive cultural notions of romance, almost everyone ends up unhappy.
This will be discussed more in depth in a forthcoming essay, but each character believes he or she will meet a tall dark stranger who will offer salvation from the boredom of everyday life. We have been told by romantic comedies and by the shameless media that we will be swept off our feet by someone, that we will meet our love on top of the Empire State Building, and that all will be well. Unfortunately that’s not how the world works.
But due to the fact that we’ve heard these stories, not only do we feel like we deserve them, but that we need to play up to them as well. We need to become tall dark strangers. There is a flashback midway through the film when Josh Brolin is having a picnic with Naomi Watts, and he is obviously exaggerating various characteristics. His “self” is not OK, because he is not normally a tall dark stranger, or cannot see himself as such, so he projects to Watts this idea of himself, one that conforms to the cultural standards. But one cannot keep up a facade for a lifetime. I get the impression that part of the dissolution of their marriage is due in part to his not being as romantic, as sexy, as intelligent, as tall or dark as when they met. It is a mad beast, this cultural demon, that will consume every relationship if given the chance.
I am not typically a huge fan of Woody Allen. I enjoy Manhattan, though admittedly mostly for its images and apparent bleakness, not its comedy. I love Annie Hall, but in terms of the other 38 films he has done only one other film has stuck with me and I’ve had a lukewarm impression of the rest (that one is a lesser known one called Zelig). But Tall Dark Stranger has changed that. This is so light-hearted and effortless, and at the same time incredibly dark and heavy. This is Allen at his best in his waning years, a perfection of comic tone, and a subject matter that is too bleak for its own good. What better time than Valentine’s Day to re-evaluate how we exist in relationships?