By Andrew Payne

In Woody Allen’s latest, “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger”, a series of interconnecting relationships end, begin, fall apart and grow stronger all with timing that seems very unfortunate. And while the characters’ timing may be off, the film’s timing is spot on in a delightful dessert cocktail of a film.

“Stranger” follows the extended London family of Helena (Gemma Jones) a recent divorcee who visits a phony fortune teller (Pauline Collins) to make sense of her life. She goes at the behest of her daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts), a gallery assistant stuck in a failing marriage with a failing writer, Roy (Josh Brolin). Gemma’s ex-husband, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) is in a similar rut, attempting to recapture his youth through exercise and awkward visits to clubs that are far too young for him.

Eventually these relationships flag, as Roy begins to take notice of young music student, Dia (Freida Pinto) who lives across the street and Sally grows closer to her boss, Greg (Antonio Banderas). Meanwhile Alfie announces his engagement to a prostitute-cum-actress-cum-prostitute-cum-trophy wife (Judy Punch) and Gemma’s increasing devotion to her fortune teller leads her on a series of misadventures with the ill-gotten advice guiding her way.

“Stranger” sets itself up from the beginning as a film that isn’t going to take these relationships too seriously. When the very first scene is a fortune teller attempting to get her customer drunk in order to make her vague prediction seem more impactful, the tone is set for a screwball romp. While “Stranger” doesn’t play with that heightened sensibility, it does deliver laughs at a similar rate.

The tone here is much more mannered (very “English”, fittingly) and Allen chooses to explore his characters rather than develop set pieces for gags and laughs. This provides us with richly drawn characters whose points of view are so readily apparent that the laughs seem almost obvious, in a good way.

And through these characters Allen makes a comment on relationships. Exactly what comment he’s making is not readily apparent, however. The film seems to exhibit a level of distaste for every type of relationship it presents without offering much in the way of insight as to how these people have arrived at such unfortunate moments in their romantic lives.

Thematically, this film leaves us wanting more. Even though an unnecessary narrator reminds in what is now the 4,687th film to use the line (unofficially) that, “Life is a tale told by an idiot filled with sound and fury and signifying nothing,” and reiterates this point later on that this film is just such a meaningless tale, that hardly seems an excuse for two-hour examination of relationships to offer us little with regards to real comment.

While this film may come up short in terms of romantic insight, it does provide excellent comic characters and some delightfully snappy writing that will charm even the saddest old sod.

A jolly good time indeed.

Oscar Hopes:

“You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” doesn’t exactly scream Oscar with its lightly comic examination of relationships, but this is Woody Allen so don’t count it out.

While it’s not been a lock in recent years, Allen is always a threat for a nomination in the Original screenplay category. The writing here is sharp and the film features some of his better joke writing in recent years. Still the shine as worn off Allen – he’s only been nominated once (“Match Point”) since 1997 and was overlooked for the lauded “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” – so a screenplay nomination is probably only a darkhorse at best.

The one thing that Allen has maintained in recent years is his ability to get Supporting Actresses nominated and Gemma Jones is an absolute scene-stealer here as the daffy Helena playing the part of stupidity with remarkable intelligence. She could very well sneak in.

And by all rights, Josh Brolin should be nominated for a vacant comic gem of a performance in which he holds the self-loathing narcissism of his character firmly to fine effect. However, he’s much more likely to snare a nomination for either “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” or the upcoming “True Grit” remake from the Coen Brothers.