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Death Knocks 

Woody Allen's 'Stranger' perhaps just not strange enough


Some writers work from the ending backward, and the newest Woody Allen film, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, shows signs of such reverse engineering. The ending neatly matches elderly pessimism and optimism with enough tidiness to look like symmetry. Does that make up for what came before—sequences of awkwardly posed actors reciting strained lines of dialogue as if, during the usual rounds of actors' roulette that occur during an Allen film, they hadn't been reshaped for the new casting? The title transforms a fortune teller's prediction into a sentence of doom, as per the line in Cassandra's Dream, "The only ship sure to come in has black sails." Here is Allen's customary theme: Given the certainty of death, how does one conduct oneself? Well, usually better than these characters.

The film concerns the sundering of an old couple. Helena (Gemma Jones) and her husband, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), have split. He is taking consolation with a prostitute named Charmaine (Lucy Punch). Helena is seeing a psychic and drinking a bit, though Allen doesn't understand what this boozing might entail; alcohol is not his thing.

Meanwhile, the couple's daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts), is struggling with her desire to have a child, as her husband, Roy (Josh Brolin), wrestles with his unpublishable novel. Roy has his own obsession with a girl across the courtyard (Freida Pinto, almost audibly pleading for direction).

Punch is the salt of this movie, a leggy comedian who makes even the minor dumb-blonde jokes sail. Allen displays her almost alarmingly, though even that display is as close to physical comedy as this movie gets. The closest to physical acting this movie gets is a shot of Brolin walking down a street in Notting Hill during a smog-colored London afternoon, buttoning his shirt over his beer gut.

Top-drawer actors lined up for even small parts. Philip Glenister (Life on Mars) looks exactly like a hawk trying to get out of the cage that Allen has built. The narration by Zak Orth (Fringe) describes Charmaine as "a little mechanic"; lines like these sound less wise-guy than scolding. If it's gotten to the point where a director can't see what a young person would enjoy in the lights and music of a disco, it's time for some kind of new stimulus—an adaptation of a book, a period drama, anything but the same old chafing gang of affluent metropolitans.

'You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger' opens on Friday, Oct. 22, at the Third Street Cinema. 630 Third St., Santa Rosa. 707.522.0330.

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