Romantic relationships seem so simple since so many people are constantly getting into them with ease. The reality is that these relationships are more complex than people give them credit for, full of all the unforeseeable variables that are constantly shifting and altering the couple unit. In fact, it should impress everyone when an intimate relationship lasts for any given period of time – that two people are able to evolve together and grow and still want to be together even when other opportunities present themselves. As the 50% of the married population who are now divorced know, however, sometimes people make stupid choices in life and relationships just don’t work out. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is a film that explores those failed relationships and the poor decisions people make that contribute to their terrible love lives.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger initially follows the relationships of two couples. The first is Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) and Helena (Gemma Jones). As they approach their golden years, Alfie begins to feel the shroud of death hovering above him and throws himself into strict health regimen of which Helena is not willing to partake. So Alfie divorces her to return to the bachelor’s life and start a new relationship with a call girl (Lucy Punch), leaving Helena distraught and emotionally fragile. Fearing the uncertainty of the future, Helena seeks the guidance of a fortune teller who gives Helena assurances regarding her life and the lives of those close to her – even if the fortune teller has no real mystical powers. The second couple is Roy (Josh Brolin) and Sally (Naomi Watts). Roy is a struggling novelist who has trouble bringing money into the household while Sally feels increasingly trapped in a marriage that’s stagnated. New people come into their lives at the worst time for their relationship, giving the couple an all too easy reason to give up on their marriage and start again with someone else.
This film is refreshing because it stubbornly strives to be the anti-romcom. Even the title seems to thumb its nose at magical romances that spring forth from nothing, turning the cliché prophecy that fortune tellers, hucksters and frauds tell their marks on its head. In the film, some characters have meet-cutes while others have meet-uglies. Some characters misread signals while others manufacture them on their own. What’s satisfying, however, is the slow degradation of the new relationships the main characters left their partners for. It’s almost like watching the stock revenge fantasy of the brokenhearted.
While schadenfreude is definitely an allure, there’s also something painful about watching these people make one long, drawn out mistake. Imagine being the passenger in a car with a driver you are unable to convince is driving towards a dead end. It’s frustrating. That same feeling will creep into audience’s minds over the course of the film, especially with Alfie’s plot. An old man with a woman less than half his age and even less than that in intelligence is a blueprint for disaster. Viewers will see the inevitable outcome and will fidget in their seats, anticipating the train wreck.
The entire cast turns in a tremendous performance overall and Woody Allen’s “stop being funny” touch can definitely be felt throughout. Hopkins believably behaves as one might expect a man who sees death on the horizon to behave. Yet, he’s still able to be funny in an unintentional way, because of the situations he finds himself in. Naomi Watts shows off her chops once again with her effortless acting. Everything she says and does feels genuine and unrehearsed. Even Lucy Punch – who doesn’t have as long of a career as her castmates – definitely holds her own and even manages to carve a bit of texture out of her otherwise one dimensional character.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is a nice distraction for as long as it lasts, but it also feels arbitrary and pointless. The voice-of-God narrator seems to hammer this point home, especially towards the end of the film. Furthermore, it’s hard to care for any of these characters and there’s very little joy to be had watching them. Even characters’ successes aren’t happy moments, because viewers will want them to fail as just desserts. While it’s a novel idea to create a film where audiences actively root against the characters, it’s also unfulfilling and doesn’t provide the catharsis that film typically delivers and audiences seek.