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Originally published Thursday, October 7, 2010 at 3:03 PM

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Movie review

'You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger': Woody Allen's new concoction of interesting characters

"You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," Woody Allen's latest London-based film, follows two couples (Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins, Gemma Jones) with marital problems. What begins as a mockery of the irrational becomes an act of faith.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

'You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,' with Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins, Gemma Jones, Freida Pinto, Antonio Banderas, Pauline Collins, Lucy Punch. Written and directed by Woody Allen. 98 minutes. Rated R for language. Meridian, Seven Gables.

MOVIE REVIEW 3 stars

For much of its first half, Woody Allen's latest London-based film seems to be shooting fish in a barrel. Then it suddenly shifts gears and takes a warmer, less-sarcastic approach to its rather brittle characters.

The title, "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," refers to the fortune-cookie aphorisms that fake spiritualists and mind readers use to trap the gullible. The chief spouter of this questionable wisdom is Cristal (Pauline Collins), a professional charlatan who convinces the vulnerable Helena (Gemma Jones) that she can foretell the future and explore her past lives.

Helena is suicidal because her husband, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), has fallen for a ridiculously obvious golddigger/hooker, Charmaine (Lucy Punch), who might as well have Blonde Bimbo tattooed on her forehead.

Alfie is so besotted that his daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts), is incapable of getting through to him. Plus she's having marital problems of her own. She's infatuated with her gallery-owner boss (Antonio Banderas), while her novelist/husband, Roy (Josh Brolin), has fallen for Dia (Freida Pinto), an alluring neighbor.

Much of this plays like a remake of Allen's first non-comedy, "Interiors" (1978). Jones has the Geraldine Page role as the abandoned wife, Hopkins takes over for E.G. Marshall as the straying husband, while Punch is cast as the vibrant, vulgar outsider Maureen Stapleton originally played to the hilt.

But it's as if the dour "Interiors" had been reworked by a more forgiving, generous filmmaker who wants to move beyond stereotypes and discover what he calls the "beautiful and ironic" aspects of life.

After lining up his fish and preparing them for execution, Allen seems to be suggesting he didn't really mean it. There's a lot of life left in these characters, and the actors do their best to capture it.

Watts has a special talent for throwing tantrums when Sally is crossed, and she brings out the long-simmering reasons for Sally's anger. Brolin's eruptions, most of them directed at Helena, are just as volcanic. Punch manages to be genuinely touching when she's allowed to expose Charmaine's maternal side.

Hopkins has perhaps the least showy role, but he doesn't just walk through the picture. Whether Alfie is overjoyed at landing Charmaine, or he's facing the facts about her flirtatious nature, Hopkins stays in character. And the scenes between British veterans Jones and Collins are gems.

Although the movie initially invites the audience to mock Helena for believing in reincarnation, it ultimately acknowledges that it might be just the ticket to get her through a bout of self- destructiveness.

Allen begins and ends the movie with the theme from Disney's "Pinocchio," "When You Wish Upon a Star." Clearly he intends that the use of the song be accepted as an act of faith.

Note: One grating aspect of the soundtrack, and perhaps the chief reason the movie risks appearing deliberately off-putting at first, is a narrator, Zak Orth, who establishes a film-noir tone that fails to fit the material. It suggests an experiment that didn't pan out.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

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