As the closing credits of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger rolled (white Windsor Light Condensed on black, as always) I pondered over what the previous 90 minutes signified in the Woody Allen catalogue. It was a watchable film, the forty-first addition to forty-five years of filmmaking. But it is not Allen at his best or moderate best. Tall Dark Stranger takes familiar stories played out in the Woodman’s other work, introducing itself with Shakespeare’s line about life being full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. That observation could also be applied to Allen’s recent output.
Everyone knows Woody Allen writes about himself, and, to a large extent, for himself. Odd is how of late he has been writing scripts about his other scripts. He paired an wealthy older man (Anthony Hopkins) with a prostitute with a heart of gold (Lucy Punch) as he did in Deconstructing Harry (1997) and Mighty Aphrodite (1996). He shows the breakup of a marriage between a washed-up writer (Josh Brolin) and fed-up wife (Naomi Watts), a formula applied to Kenneth Branagh and Judy Davis in Celebrity (1998) and to himself and Mia Farrow (ah, the days of Farrow-Allen!) in Husbands and Wives (1991). Hopkin’s wife Gemma Jones experiences supernatural communication with the dead; this happened to Mia Farrow in Alice (1990) and Scarlett Johansson in Scoop (2006). Allen can always make the ordinary watchable, but even the help of monstrously talented casts cannot cover up this act of recycling.
There is no doubt that Allen is still brilliant, still industrious, and still more than capable at crafting entertainment. How he can write more one-liners is, at this point, beyond comprehension. But easier to spot than a genius is a lazy genius. I can imagine him dashing off 10 pages of dialogue in between swallowing Advils, half-distracted by a migraine and a fear of the abyss. Roger Ebert said Tall Dark Stranger was “every frame an Allen film, but it isn’t very much more.” It is definitely funny, definitely ironic, and definitely low on faith in human interaction. The film does not so much conclude as end with a shrug, narrator Zak Orth reminding us of Shakespeare’s line about life being full of sound and…what? Nothing?
Has Allen said all he has to say? If he wanted his career to have an arc, he probably should have stopped after Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989). That sublime combination of comedy and drama would have been a perfect swan song to his humour and the clouds of despair at the universe that hang over his work. It would have shown a level of maturity from the man who made Bananas and Sleeper, a cinematic graduation from the “earlier funny ones” to complex morality tales like Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), that smacked not a little of Bergman. However, Allen went on to write and direct a wildly inconsistent batch of films in the 1990s. Critics stopped looking too hard for glimmers of the old Allen after the box office failure of The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001), which is actually not that bad (yet hugely over-budgeted at $33 million; Allen shot the successful Vicky Christina Barcelona for fifteen).
It is hard to call all of post-80s Allen lighthearted – Matchpoint and Shadows and Fog are as dark as he gets – but his work has definitely become airier. Like Tarantino at his worst, Allen can still flourish endless clever premises (Small Time Crooks, Melinda and Melinda, Hollywood Ending) and conjure one liners on the spot. At Cannes he even delivered another funny quip when asked what he felt about mortality: “My relationship to death remains the same. I’m strongly against it.” But he cannot do now what he did in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985): take a meta-fictional story full of ironic postmodernism and make it genuine. It was a love story between poor Cecilia and dashing (yet fictional) Tom Baxter, and a love story between Allen and cinema. Nothing since has been so heartfelt and hilarious. To his credit, Hollywood Ending and Small Time Crooks were amusing (if morally vacuous) comedies. Allen pulls surprising and sometimes implausible endings to leave his characters happy, or the majority in decent spirits. Deus ex machina was never so obvious as the helicopter that lands in front of Mira Sorvino at the end of Mighty Aphrodite, uniting the unlucky heroine with her future soulmate.
These forced conclusions come off as subversive from Allen, who has repeatedly told us how deluded and miserable we all are. According to Alfie Singer we should be happy to be miserable. In hindsight it was the most consoling thought Allen ever shared with us. His films are less concerned with puzzling out a moral philosophy than throwing rich attractive people into each other’s lives and beds. A.O. Scott of the New York Times has called his recent work “timid and defensive”, glazed with the “fussed-over air of a hobbyist’s playthings”. Rick Groen of the Globe and Mail extends the comparison to
an aging cabinet maker still blessed with craft but grown erratic in design…At best, the little drawers, the ones marked Comedy and Tragedy and Love and Death, pull out smoothly and the whole thing looks relatively attractive and works quite functionally – think Match Point or Vicky Cristina Barcelona. At worst, the conception degenerates into a contraption of ill-fitting pieces and rusty old hinges –Scoop is the obvious example.
Though it is true that Allen has become less audience-friendly, the decline has not been steady. Match Point was one of his best dramas and Vicky-Christina Barcelona (2008), while overrated, glimmered with hope for a Woody renaissance. The shift to Europe, or a warm, upper-middle class version of Europe, might freshen his narratives. But he will probably not direct another Manhattan (1979). He might not even make another Radio Days (1987).
Woody had a lot to say about relationships, sex, anxiety, the human condition, and self-delusion. He could take the best of what European artists were saying – be it Fellini, Bergman, or Dostoyevsky – and translate their ideas for North American intellectuals. New York, once a beautiful character unto itself, became a ubiquitous backdrop to his rushed plots. Unfortunately, Allen’s settings now refuse to be contemporary, as if he is condensing his fear of aging onto postcard locales in Barcelona and Manhattan. Most recently, his “London” is sunny window dressing for Hopkins, Jones, Brolin, Watts, and others to struggle with underwritten characters.
Although Tall Dark Stranger has a lot of different Allen elements, this does not make for a triumphant celebration. It is not like Shakespeare waving goodbye in The Tempest, but more a nod of recognition. Woody is still here, but lately showing up cannot count for 80%.