I'll admit it: I'm a sucker for a great Woody Allen movie. His 40th feature, "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," is a rich tapestry of witty dialogue, brilliant performances, delicious jazz standards and a plot that is both surprising and thought-provoking. At once a cynical examination of infidelity and a sweet love story that rewards good people, "Stranger" is thoroughly entertaining ... and Allen's best film since "Crimes and Misdemeanors."
Allen's narrator reminds us of Shakespeare's observation that life is "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," and with this we are introduced to the aged Helena (Gemma Jones), fresh from being abandoned by her frisky husband, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins). Alfie is terrified of dying, so he works out like a fiend and then dumps his wife, who won't keep up with him. Finding no comfort on the therapist's couch, Helena has retreated to the world of fortunetelling to help her cope with this sudden chaos.
But the rest of her clan is also in discord: Daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) hungers for her boss, Greg (Antonio Banderas), while her husband, Roy (Josh Brolin), avoids writing his next novel to stare out the window at a fetching music student, Dia (Freida Pinto). The Shakespeare reference is from "Macbeth," and like the tragic Scot, each character surrenders to ambition, romantic and otherwise -- Alfie marries a prostitute, Charmaine (Lucy Punch, hilarious), and hopes to have a male heir; Sally wants her own art gallery, and Roy steals a manuscript to revive his flagging career. As befell Macbeth, ambition will be their ruin.
Only Helena escapes this fate, finding her "tall dark stranger" in the frumpy occult bookseller, Jonathan (Roger Ashton-Griffiths). At one point, Allen briefly invokes William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow," a poem about discovering profundity in the plain and simple. This is Helena's gift, and the bitterness in the film is leavened with a genuinely moving love affair between two kind souls.
"You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" is Woody Allen at his most effective, funny and devastating, a feast for the eyes, ears and mind.