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Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for a limited audience.


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. "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger"

In the comedic universe of Woody Allen you won't find this comedy of marital terrors at the frontier of his past glory. On an Allen Bests list, its fortune is to battle it out on the lower extremities. Its wry look at the fallout of marital timebombs manages to create a few moments of amusement, true, but its use of a pile driver when a ball peen hammer would have done the trick takes the edge off the craftsmanship.

For its faults, though, don't look at the cast, which is, once again in an Allen lineup, exemplary. It's just that the actors are being done no favors by having a berth on this exaggerated opera plot of family instability by way of feverish lust. It might have played well for Puccini or Verdi, but Allen has called upon the players to lower their standards in doing their bit to breathe life into the variations on a theme.

Everyone's dissatisfied with their marriage. Sally and Roy (Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin) are battling finances because, as a none-too-talented novelist, they have only one income... hers. There's nothing like money-problems to raise the level of discontent and this shows up in her consideration of her handsome boss Greg (Antonio Banderas), the owner of a successful art gallery.

With gorgeous Dia (Freida Pinto) arousing Roy's voyeuristic tendencies by appearing one day playing a guitar in a window across the way from his workroom window, the suffering author's personal story is about to take a detour, as well, and there's no part in it for Sally.

Ageing Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), on the other hand, Sally's dad, has already made his move. He divorced mom Helena (indestructible Gemma Jones) recently, set himself up in a new pad, fell in lust with his favorite prostitute Charmaine (Lucy Punch) and lured her into an actual marriage with promises of spoiling her more rotten than she ever's been before. Being an airhead with street smarts, she goes for it, but the chemistry in this coupling has all the elements of a fizz bomb (citric acid, cornstarch, baking soda).

But it's Helena who is the catalyst for a whole lot of weird and whacky business what with her misguided faith in fortune teller Cristal Delgiorno (Pauline Collins) and her charlatan "impressions" about everything going on in Helena's life. This lady knows a receptive sucker when one walks through her door. The effect is that much aggravation and woe is to be the lot of those whose futures are being determined through Helena's absolute belief in her phony oracle's pronouncements. Unfortunately, Sally and Roy are obliged to humor the nonsense spouting out of mom. Helena is paying the rent.

Of these ingredients Allen's schmaltzy satire on marriage commitment is composed, and it gives him plenty to cut back and forth with as we follow the developments. No sooner does one slice of an episode end on a dry or frantic note but that he can cut to any one of the other slices held in overheated limbo. Allen's ear for comedy does achieve a level of entertainment but the question of being worth the price of admission grows more relevant as the threads unspool, as the fool and the cynic clash, as the disappointments and betrayals pile up.

This time out, however, comedic genius fails to lift Allen's load of infidelity above the underlying thinness of the concept, and that doesn't auger well for a movie date with that tall dark stranger.

The thespians give it everything they've got, and that's substantial. It's interesting to see Indian exotic Freida Pinto directly off her solid debut hit in "Slumdog Millionaire." A bit unsteady in the early going, but later events give her some dramatic meat to bite into and she shows an allure that will be useful in other contexts.

As annoying as Gemma Jones' role is, she's a marvel of strength in acting savvy, and it shows in her exquisite timing and movement. She shows what 48 years on the boards can bring to an ensemble.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Gemma Jones and Naomi Watts, mom and daughter
Just where is this tall dark stranger?

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