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Woody's Back, And in Fine Form

We all know bad Woody Allen.  The neurotic, cradle-robbing husband, the cranky nihilist, the overgrown adolescent, the sad-eyed auteur who turns out movie after dark movie about hapless lovers and who hasn’t made us laugh much since we were kids watching “Sleeper.”  Here we go again, goes the collective sigh.

   Allow me to weigh in with the minority report.  

   Woody Allen is one of our finest living filmmakers, who has created a body of work that cuts to the heart of humanity’s weaknesses and moral dilemmas. True, humanity as represented in Allen’s movies is a narrow slice of white, upper-class bohemian, more often than not facing an existential and creative crisis. But let it not be said that a majority of the movie-going audience hasn’t been in Woody’s or his characters’ shoes.

   And if there are duds and missteps and the occasional contrivance, well, what director this side of Hitchcock has ever had a flawless career? By and large, Allen is putting out original, artfully wrought films that challenge, entertain, amuse (if not with laugh-out-loud gags) and bring out the best in his actors.

   In any event, one such movie is “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.” A breezy rumination on Allen’s eternal themes, which are to say, love and death, “Stranger” benefits from a half-dozen outstanding performances, led by the versatile Naomi Watts and the venerable British actress Gemma Jones.

   Accompanied by voiceover, we meet Helena (Jones), whose husband of 40 years, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), has recently divorced her after contemplating his mortality and aging a bit too closely.  Meanwhile, Helena’s daughter, Sally (Watts), also has a marriage fraying at the edges, with a shiftless husband, Roy (Josh Brolin), in a state of permanent writer’s block after a one-hit-wonder novel.  His inability to hold a job forces the young couple to live on Helena’s money and forces Sally to go to work as an assistant to a gallery owner (Antonio Banderas).

   While the women go about trying to pull their lives together — Helena by seeking the guidance of a spiritualist, Sally by working — the men do what Woody’s men usually do: they seek solace in skirt-chasing.  Alfie falls for a call girl (Lucy Punch); Roy for the girl in the window across the street (Freida Pinto).

   Much grief and misunderstanding ensues, temptations are wrestled with or given into, and everyone engages in some form of self-deception or outright deception. There is the by-now familiar Allen journey to the borderlands between crime and punishment, personal choice and fate — less successful here, however, than in the more Hitchcock-inspired “Match Point.”

   Perhaps the most interesting invention is the character of Cristal (Pauline Collins), the spiritualist. Allen leaves unresolved the question of whether a belief in the unseen is delusional or essential to humanity, or both.

   The biggest misstep in “Stranger” is the completely superfluous and clumsy voiceover.

   The biggest surprise is that there are some genuinely funny moments. It’s nice to see that good Woody hasn’t entirely lost his humorist’s touch, tinged though it is with sadness and irony.

“You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger” is rated R for some language.  It is opening at The Moviehouse in Millerton.

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