The Nutty Allen

Every director, no matter how talented, has a signature fixation that makes a film his own. Clint Eastwood likes heavy shadows. Spike Lee likes his actors on dollies. And the prolific Woody Allen likes — himself.

“You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” is no exception. Like Allen’s classics “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan,” the tale about love and (failed) marriage is a reflection of his own neuroses, showcasing the insane obstacle course that men and women put themselves through in search of happiness.

Naomi Watts plays Sally, an art-gallery assistant in a tense marriage with a failing writer (Josh Brolin). She’s also coping with a suicidal-turned-alcoholic mother (Gemma Jones), who supports them financially — between binges, at least — and an oblivious father (Anthony Hopkins) who has married a young escort to stave off mortality.

The characters careen through the plot at full speed, making unbelievable choices that only make sense given Allen’s sheer trust in the world he’s created. Sally falls head-over-heels for her unhappily married boss (Antonio Banderas) as her husband stalks a neighbor (Freida Pinto) and an obviously phony psychic seduces her mother. Allen’s tight screenwriting grounds the fiasco in the real world, however ridiculous and over-the-top it may get. His characteristic handle on irony keeps “Stranger” enjoyable.

It easily could have been depressing. The third act sees some dramatic drops in morale for all the main players. No one gets what they want, and despite shared devotion to falling in love, affairs and marriages sour. It’s typical Allen. Life’s absurdity is exposed, the pathetic go unrewarded and the writer plays the fool.

Since it’s such standard Allen-fare, “Stranger” won’t disappoint the diehards and serves as a good introduction for those foreign to the director’s shtick.

The film’s only downfall is also characteristic: The actors seem vaguely out of place in their roles. Though the cast veterans make a seasoned attempt to move naturally through Allen’s world, there is no disguising their discomfort. The filmmaker makes the characters into facets of his own personality — so that Allen is the only true fit for each role. You know, like the Jewish “Nutty Professor.”

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