Blind date: Antonio Banderas, Naomi Watts and Anna Friel flounder in Woody Allen's latest
The customary way in which to start a review of a new Woody Allen film is to ask: "So is this a return to form for Woody?" It's a question that's been put forward for so long now that many reviewers will be too young to remember what that form actually was and where it originated. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is his 40th film, but it really bears as much relation to Manhattan, say, or Annie Hall, as The Terminator does to The King's Speech. Perhaps that's an exaggeration; as with Allen's famous Diane Keaton period, the new film is also concerned with love, fear of death and loneliness, the sheer nothingness of it all. But any resemblance beyond that to the films that epitomised his so-called "form" is, as they say, purely coincidental.
Actually, people have gradually stopped asking that question. The era of Woody is over. His films now seem to creep out into cinemas (that's when they get theatrical releases) and are no longer the events they used to be. This is not just because he has lost his touch, although most of his more recent output is certainly lame, lacking the cleverness, insight and celebration of sheer neurosis that were his trademarks. And it does not mean that he cannot produce pleasant, mildly diverting comedies such as this one. It is largely because the world he once depicted — especially the one inhabited by uptown New Yorkers — has moved away from him. It is a universe now of smart-alec HBO post-modern TV shows, which make his one-liners seem arthritic. It is a universe full of Sex and The City wannabes, in thrall to rap music and talent contests and courting rituals carried out with Austenian precision. New York itself has changed; Allen has said it's getting harder and harder to be romantic about his beloved city. Looking there now for that famous Allen milieu — of strolls in galleries, intellectual one-upmanship and doubt, doubt, doubt — would be like trying to find the Ealing comedy sensibility in contemporary London; it exists mostly as a memory, albeit a cherished one.
Maybe Allen realises this, for a number of his recent films have been set in European cities. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger takes place in London, among a social group a few rungs down from the almost cartoonishly upper-class family we saw in Match Point. It has an Anglo-American cast including faces comfortably familiar to UK audiences, such as Gemma Jones (who, one imagines, would once have never seen herself in a Woody Allen ensemble) as Helena, an older woman abandoned by her husband Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) for a bimbo and now seeking comfort with a phony fortune-teller. Her daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) is herself in a troubled marriage to Roy, a young writer (Josh Brolin) who is tormented with the fear that he might be a one-book-wonder, and who numbs the pain by spying on Dia, a beautiful young Indian woman (Freida Pinto) in the flat opposite. As if in subconscious retaliation, Sally decides to set her sights on her sophisticated, successful boss (Antonio Banderas, looking old).
Everybody, in other words, is in search of something or somebody else. Nobody is contented; love and success are elusive. The film ambles along, occasionally throwing up one or two laugh-out-loud lines, but mostly it works as a series of nice little set pieces, the pleasure we get from it being the same we might derive from amusing, overheard conversations. Far too late in the day, a potentially big piece of plotting involving Roy is introduced which in other hands could have turned it into a thriller with some good comedy around the edges, but here it leads almost nowhere; what happens next is left hanging in the air, and the film ends abruptly with no resolution to anybody's dilemmas, rather as though the producers had simply run out of money.
If he had been created for another movie genre, the character of Roy the writer might have had a far more satisfying solution to his blockage. Limitless, which is the kind of slick Hollywood fare presumably despised by Allen, also has a struggling author at its centre, but one who, by taking a simple and yet ground-breaking drug, can utilise 100 per cent of his brain rather than the measly 20 per cent most of us apparently chug along with. Essentially, this is the very definition of a "high concept" film, in that it poses the audience with a party-game question: what would your life be like if you had access to every last piece of your potential?
Directed by Neil Burger, Limitless merely scratches the surface of the possible ramifications, but does so with such panache and with such a strong narrative drive forward that none of the implausibilities come to light until hours afterwards. Our writer here, Eddie (Bradley Cooper), down and out, barely awake half the time, finds his life is transformed by the new wonder pill; like a vampire he becomes super-aware, finishes his book within hours and then goes on to bigger, more lucrative enterprises. As his life trajectory goes through the roof, he is pursued by gangsters and the fear that his stash will run out. It's like Dr Faustus on speed, and one can easily see how its target audience might adopt the peripheral benefits Eddie enjoys — speeding cars, endless socialising — in the belief that he really is living life to the full (after all, many of them do already). In some ways, it's a movie celebration of utter selfishness, but it manages to grip you, and, unlike Woody's effort, it pays you the compliment of having an ending.