A couple of Woody Allen’s recent movies have migrated to near the top of my list of recent favorites: Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris seem to find their way into my rotation regularly. There is something in the former that probes the mysteries of relationships and friendship in a way that resonates with me; the latter touches on this a bit as well, though it’s more whimsy and, well, more Paris. For whatever reason I find myself compelled to revisit.
But his films are always a hit-or-miss proposition for me. Despite loving the aforementioned, neither 2012's To Rome With Love or 2013's Blue Jasmine especially hit their marks with me. Now I’ve recently watched his 2010 film You Will Meet A Tall, Dark Stranger and I find it leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth.
Josh Brolin plays Roy Channing, a struggling middle-aged novelist who lives in London with his wife Sally (Naomi Watts), an art expert who yearns to open her own gallery. She works presently as an assistant at someone else’s gallery and doesn’t earn much money, and after one successful book years before her husband is basically unemployed (he trained to be a physician). To make ends meet, they rely on assistance from Sally’s mother Helena (Gemma Jones), a situation which pleases no one. Roy is determined to make his way as a writer, but Helena never believed in this course of action and Sally, while not wanting to be the unsupportive wife, thinks enough time has been spent in this endeavor. She has held off starting a family for years while he tries to find his way, and she’s had enough of this. When his latest book does not get picked up by his publisher she wants to throw in the towel—meanwhile, he hatches a hare-brained scheme. Sally’s parents are also going thru a crisis—after 40 years of marriage, Helena’s husband Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) has left her for a prostitute half his age (the quintessential Woody-Allen-style midlife crisis). Helena has taken to drinking too much and to spending a great deal of time and money with a psychic (Pauline Collins), a development that seems destined to have an unhappy outcome.
With their unhappiness at home, both Roy and Sally find themselves drawn to others, him to the beautiful young music PhD and classical guitarist, Dia (Frida Pinto)—this guitar thing is a recurring theme lately for Woody—and her to the art gallery owner with whom she works, Greg Clemente (Antonio Banderas). And of course Sally’s parents are seeking love elsewhere with varying degrees of success.
On paper these don’t seem like bad bones on which to hang a film, though it’s maybe more material than can be gone into with very much detail in the time allotted. Each of these characters is kind of given a single element to define them, which makes everybody a bit, well, one-dimensional. Still, the film makes me think about what is essential in telling a story, which is not a bad outcome so far as it goes. But he does something here that I was not at all expecting: he brings all these story lines to a crisis and then… walks away. Perhaps—my standard caveat—I need to watch the film again, but for the life of me I can’t figure how he felt this was the best ending, or even a satisfactory one. I do think it’s a valid strategy to leave an audience hanging at the end of a film—Anthony Minghella's 1999 film The Talented Mr. Ripley comes immediately to mind; my family members who watched it on my recommendation almost lynched me when the credits rolled—and there are times where the questions might be inherently more interesting than any of the answers. I get this. But with a Woody Allen film, a filmmaker whose entire approach rests in the intimate and interpersonal, this feels like exactly the wrong strategy. If personalities and personal stories are all that drive a story along, then to work to make us care about these people and their stories and then place them in crises and just walk away would be infuriating if it weren’t so unexpected. I find myself asking over and over, “Is this OK? Is it OK to end the film like this?” It feels wrong, and yet I don’t want to make a definitive pronouncement.
After a career spent filming in New York City, Allen’s last few films have been set in Europe. Stranger is set comfortably in London, though I think he lingers on the setting much less than Paris or Rome. Again, this is much more about these people than about their setting, which is what makes the ending so controversial.
I reserve my right to see the light when it goes on, but for now I remain unconvinced.