“We are slaves to our desires,” is a recurrent theme in the work of Woody Allen, but with his latest effort, an accurate evaluation of this axiom begs adding the scornful, “and to our satisfaction.” Or dissatisfaction.
In the world of “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” just about every character wants something beyond their reach, a something (mysterious woman, literary success, reclaimed youth, illicit affair) they really have no inherent or moral right to have. They covet wildly. Besieged by dissatisfaction and ingratitude, they act out with shameless ambition. The fear of being caught or found out doesn’t even warrant a pause – guilt and shame are nonexistent qualities. As typical for most Allen characters, they are all hopelessly cultivated, wealthy, attractive, sexually adventurous and utterly insecure.
Roy (Josh Brolin) finished medical school only to spurn the doctorly life for the bohemian romanticism of a literary one. Trouble is he apparently has only one good book in him – and three really bad ones. The anxiety of his imminent doom is tempered only by the beautiful woman in red (Freida Pinto) he peeps through his window. Roy’s father-in-law, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), abruptly leaves his devoted wife of 40 years because “she was getting old and I refused to accept that.” Impulsively marrying a rent-girl initially provides Alfie the robust rejuvenation he coveted, but quickly his life descends into bankruptcy and cuckoldry.
The women show no better. Roy’s wife, Sally (well played by Naomi Watts) at first comes off as a supportive and caring daughter and wife. But those illusions fade when her boss chooses to have an affair with her artist friend instead of her, and her mother is told by a charlatan fortune teller that she shouldn’t give Sally the loan she desperately needs to open her own art gallery. Avarice is rampant, pride a disease. Everyone's miserable. Not even the doe-eyed innocence of Dia (the mysterious woman in red) belies her faultlessness. She is given to the same irrational dissatisfaction (and desire) as everyone else.
The problem is, even when they get what they want, they end up even more discontent than before. Lives fall apart, relationships crumble, bank accounts collapse, frauds risk uncovering. Woody Allen has always leaned cynical, but with ‘Stranger’ he’s promoted cynicism from bemusing leitmotif to central thematic element. He doesn't even bother much to developing the characters save the minimum exposition necessary to parade their selfishness.
Most of us don’t know what we want, those of us who do figure it out are usually driven by wrongheaded and ungrateful motivations, and then when – always when, never if in Allen films – we do get what we want, we are punished heavily for it, usually by fate. In the end, only the most delusional have a chance at approaching happiness.