Last night we went to see Woody Allen's new movie, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.
It's set in London, nowadays. When Josh Brolin appears, as a writer struggling to repeat his first-novel success, I groaned. "Not another Woody miscasting!" I sighed to myself -- for Brolin would be better cast as a professional boxer than a writer.
"It's wonderful that Woody keeps setting his movies in foreign locations," I went on, trying to be positive (silently: you musn't speak aloud during the performance). "So few American directors are willing to immerse themselves in foreign cultures, as opposed to transporting American cultures to foreign locations. (Much like American foreign policy under George W. Bush/Dick Cheney!) But though he's so musical -- he's been playing the clarinet in New York jazz clubs for decades -- he just doesn't "get" the British social hierarchy, which can be measured almost entirely by accent and schooling (manners, etc). Look at Match Point -- a nice, Agatha Christie-type of story, told by a deaf director..."
Even the initial Spanish guitar soundtrack grated, as it seemed to have little or nothing to do with London, rather than Barcelona.
We were with some friends who walk out of movies if they don't like them -- within ten minutes. I have another friend, a poet, who does the same with books -- he gives them thirty pages...
Then the penny dropped! Oh, my gosh, Woody's not only gone deadpan comedic, he's gone native! One after another, a succession of priceless English characters -- played pricelessly by English actors -- took over the screen, acting out the sort of Allen-esque New York Jewish farces he was once famous for, but has now transported to modern London: the posh, monied, batty old mother who can't stand her American son-in-law (Josh Brolin), and who begins going to a fraudulent psychic for guidance; her overworked art-dealing daughter who wants a baby, but can't get her husband (Josh Brolin) to comply; the old lady's former husband, who's bored with her and, egged on by his son-in-law (Josh Brolin), marries a prostitute; the neighbor, of Indian extraction, who dumps her nice, upper class English fiancé, to live with a writer (Josh Brolin)...
Everything goes wrong, of course -- in the most hilarious ways. Gemma Jones, Anthony Hopkins, Naomi Watts, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, and Lucy Punch: this is truly a smorgasbord of English character-acting at its finest, in the Mike Leigh class but funny as hell. Absurd? Yes. Comic -- and how! as each one pursues his or her destiny without the slightest idea of how this must all look to the Almighty -- or almighty director.
I see Christy Lemire, in an Associated Press review, has damned the movie as joyless and uninteresting. "You will see a dull, shallow movie," she titled her piece, intending to be witty. She must have had a disagreeable pre-movie dinner, or seen a different film to the one I saw. As Brolin -- playing the failing writer, Roy -- wrecks more and more lives, the movie reaches a hysteria-level similar to the best of Monty Python. I'm still chuckling at some of the scenes -- of Anthony Hopkins introducing his "catch," the call girl Charmaine, to Naomi Watts, playing his distraught daughter; of Freida Pinto calling off her wedding, to the apoplexy of her intended English future in-laws; of Gemma Jones -- playing Helena -- feeding wide-eyed on the fantasy-advice (and heavy liquor) of her psychic, played by Pauline Collins; of Malcolm MacQueen -- playing Brolin's publisher -- telling Brolin he won't take Brolin's new novel; of Antonio Banderas -- playing Greg, the gallery owner for whom Naomi Watts works, why he isn't interested in her romantically... I think these are not only some of the most beautifully acted comic scenes in contemporary filmmaking, they have the added bite of being laceratingly critical of contemporary values and inanities. The lure both of filthy lucre and the high life (and high-end sports cars) that "success" will bring, animates the lives of most of the characters -- as it does our own! The publisher in his London plate glass palace (Penguin Press?) that has nothing whatsoever in common with real books, the gallery owner (on Bond Street?) whose wealth has nothing whatsoever to do with real art...
The New York Times reviewer, A.O. Scott (who is often so acute), accused Anthony Hopkins of sleepwalking through his role -- but those of who rate at the top of our all-time favorites Emil Jannings, playing the schoolteacher who falls in love with Lola, the nightclub singer, played by Marlene Dietrich, in von Sternberg's famous film The Blue Angel, will not be disappointed -- it is a brilliant feat of achingly comedic impersonation, as he portrays an ageing, lonely, wealthy Englishman searching for a young woman on whom to lavish his money... When he asks her to wait three more minutes, until his Viagra pill can take effect, yet with such a deadpan, serious face, I wondered how many filmmakers are there left in this world who can convey that depth of humor in a post-Python world?
Anyway, I went home chuckling, and I awoke chuckling. And though I could have seen a documentary about Wall Street shenanigans, a feature film about Wall Street shenanigans, or films of epic, dramatized bloodshed on our streets, this beautiful film, set in the old streets of modern London, restored my joie de vivre, in a world that often (especially in the lead up to the midterm elections) feels as if it's going to hell in a proverbial handbasket.
I wish American reviewers were more willing to laugh. But if you love fine English acting, and you like dead-pan comedy, I can guarantee you will meet the less-than tall masters of contemporary farce, and be amused. Moreover the English class-accents, I can also guarantee, are brilliant -- from top to bottom. Bravo Woody, I say!
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