Kept afloat by a great cast, Woody Allen's latest foray into the perverse follies of mankind begins with a statutory quote from Macbeth about the futility of it all. But like so much of Allen's work over the past decade, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is more Bergman-lite than Shakespearean tragedy. Not that there's anything intrinsically wrong with tilling the same patch of existential soil over and over, if something fresh or wise or even visually arresting comes out of it.
Notwithstanding the occasional contrarian blogger who insists that Allen's genius remains undiluted, the rap is that as he coasts toward 80, he has exhausted his capacity for self-renewal. And it's true: The years have brought self-indulgent repetition, not to mention a sloppy carelessness with plot and structure — the price, perhaps, of sustaining hectic productivity into old age (nearly a movie a year since the late '60s) without much change to his routine beyond the escape from New York to photogenic European capitals. This time, the action, however circular and self-defeating, unfolds in a handsomely shot (by Vilmos Zsigmond) central London whose touristy, Hollywood-inspired Englishness may in part account for the snippy local reviews that greeted Allen's other movies on English soil — Match Point, Scoop, and Cassandra's Dream.
As always, desire and illusion and their collateral emotional wreckage fuel this paper-thin tale of two couples, each in their age-appropriate way hell-bent on burning every domestic bridge before they cross it. Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), an affluent older Englishman who never got the son he wanted, tries to beat the mortality odds by dumping Helena (Gemma Jones), his wife of many years, for — whaddayaknow — a bimbo hooker named Charmaine (Lucy Punch). Helena's daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts), grows a crush on her art-gallery boss (Antonio Banderas), while her American husband, Roy (Josh Brolin), a novelist, whiles away his writer's block by spying on nubile neighbor Dia (Slumdog Millionaire's Freida Pinto) as she undresses in front of her window. The lust piles up, complicated by an act of intellectual property theft so clumsy it invites a puerile snicker.
Even as Allen's star wanes, no movie of his gets released without gushing encomia from actors frothing about how getting his call was the high point of their careers. Truth to tell, though, it's Allen who is routinely rescued by his ensembles these days, and Tall Dark Stranger is no exception. Brolin's brutal looks may remind you of a miniaturized King Kong, but he's one of the smartest, most elastic actors in American cinema. He wisely underplays Roy's efforts to sidestep the growing likelihood that he may be nothing more than a flash in the literary pan, thus earning for the lousy cad a touch more sympathy than he deserves. Clever Gemma Jones, doing a slightly more downbeat version of Bridget Jones' dizzy mom, can carry almost any line, however crude. (Though not even she can pull off "Don't get a crush on your boss — that way lies total madness" without sounding like Carrie Bradshaw.)
That You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is not more dull is due in large part to the adorably flamboyant Punch (late of Dinner for Schmucks and Hot Fuzz), drawing on ancient British vaudeville traditions as the prostitute whose instinctive carnality makes Alfie feel first young again, then totally tapped out. The peculiar male fantasy that those who are paid for sex really enjoy it makes this airhead the only guilt-free, and therefore truly likable, libertine among this neurotically self-flagellating crew. Charmaine may amount to little more than a slightly shrewder version of Mira Sorvino's delightful bubblehead in Mighty Aphrodite, but Punch's giddy Cockney charm and sinuous ease in her own skin steals the movie from under the rest of the cast, all cranking their way gamely through a script dripping with lazy clichés.
For a committed nihilist, Allen always comes saddled with an oddly biblical sense of retributive justice. Just about every player in this mildly entertaining but heavily trodden comedy reaps what they sow in nasty, unintended consequences. For some, the payback arrives with the realization that another tall, dark stranger, the one with the scythe and the big hoodie, is coming for them whether they've been good, bad, or ugly. A royal flogging is visited on all who transgress, except perhaps the one truly deluded loon who believes in psychics and reincarnation. At almost 75 years old, Woody Allen still believes we need "the eggs" — the buzz of relationship however crazy or forbidden. So we do, but what a pity that lately, from him, they come parboiled.