Human foibles, in major and minor keys, are the chords that Woody Allen has been pounding for roughly 45 years. So it should come as no surprise that in his new frothy and fitful romantic black comedy, "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," everyone must take a spin around the dance floor with the disillusionments, deceptions and dissatisfactions of life.
Allen has put his latest morality and mortality tale in the hands of his usual complement of fine actors, who play interlocking couples each fraught in their own way. It starts with the dizzy delight of Gemma Jones as Helena, the matriarch in the meddling middle of it all. By the time we meet her, she's attempted suicide after being divorced by her wayward husband, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), who like his cinematic namesake hit midlife wondering "What's it all about?" and it wasn't about Helena.
Now Helena is settled into a needy depression helped by copious amounts of alcohol that's put her daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) on edge and sent her son-in-law Roy (Josh Brolin) over it. But then they are barely treading their own troubled waters with Sally ready to trade career for a child and Roy desperate to resurrect his as a novelist with one long-ago success followed by a string of failures.
Another strain teasing out the tension is that most human of all foibles and one of the filmmaker's favorites — a belief in true romance that he loves to systematically destroy. Thus the necessary complications for our couples come in fetching forms: Roy's is Dia (Frieda Pinto), a beautiful enigma he spies from his window; Alfie's is a brassy blond named Charmaine (a very funny Lucy Punch); Sally's is her elegant art-gallery boss, Greg ( Antonio Banderas). And Helena's is that stranger on the horizon.
Giving the film its name and its tone is a clever psychic con named Cristal, played with a calculating empathy by Pauline Collins, whom you may remember from her Oscar-nominated turn as a 40ish woman on the verge in 1989's "Shirley Valentine." Here her timing is as spot-on as Cristal's predictions for Helena, which is to say she keeps everything merry and moving.
The story is set in current-day London, Allen's movie home away from home in recent years. Leaving the safety of Manhattan at first proved invigorating in 2005's "Match Point" but less so for "Scoop" and "Cassandra's Dream," which followed. A brief sojourn through Spain for 2008's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" came with a fresh life. "Whatever Works," back in Manhattan in 2009, didn't. "Tall Dark Stranger" is somewhere in between.
The film is Allen's third and best collaboration with director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond, a legend in his own right with such iconic classics as "The Deer Hunter" and an Oscar for "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." In "Tall Dark Stranger," the slices of life cut between the tradition-bound Brit — housewife Helena in her dowdy flower-prints and dated hats — and the contemporary most pointedly in Alfie's blindingly white penthouse styled for his new Viagra-infused life. Yet for the most part Zsigmond creates a faded wallpaper softness to the look that gives the film an almost ethereal charm.
That same softness extends to other parts of the production in ways not as satisfying. Where once Allen's players would have drawn blood, sometimes quite literally given the filmmaker's affection for killing off inconvenient characters ("Crimes and Misdemeanors" among them), here they pull their punches. The dialogue drifts into the petulance of bickering children rather than the biting brilliance that marks the best of his work.
In using a lighter touch, he's made it harder to root for — or against — anyone in particular with the exception of Jones, a veteran British character actor probably best known in the U.S. as Bridget Jones' flighty mum who blows into each of her scenes like a blithe spirit. Brolin, always better with a sharp edge, suffers, and Hopkins nearly fades away.
Thematically, Allen moves his unhappy troupe through life's ups and downs in ways that will feel familiar to anyone who's followed his work — perhaps the curse of such a long career. This kinder, gentler Allen is still clever, still amusing, and the film itself is a confection tempting enough to consider a taste. Yet there is that empty-calorie letdown after it's over. Maybe it's time to book another trip to Spain.