Antonio Banderas, Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins, Gemma Jones, Freida Pinto, Lucy Punch, Naomi Watts, Pauline Collins, Anna Friel, Ewen Bremner, Christian McKay, Neil Jackson, Jim Piddock

Written and directed by Woody Allen
Sony Classics

During his glory days, Woody Allen spoiled us with raunchy, cerebral, richly layered comedies each and every year, a case of charmed clockwork. In his deft, intensely romanticized portrait of life and lust Manhattan style, balding intellectual nerds, usually played by Allen himself, made a habit of seducing gorgeous, if daffy, young women, played by such real-life Allen conquests as Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow. When things simmered down, the lovebirds would part, each winging off to the next hot, hilarious affair. (While, off camera, a cool jazz band would seduce us with the pure rapture of Porter, Gershwin, Mercer, Carmichael, Ellington and Rodgers and Hart.)

It’s almost impossible to overstate the joy and exuberance of those romanticomic gems from the seventies and eighties, particularly “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan,” “Broadway Danny Rose,” “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Radio Days”—though, to be honest, there were numerous hints of sadness, dark currents conveying the futility of excessive optimism.

It is equally difficult to exaggerate the dreary impact of the shrill, unsexy jabbering that has torpedoed so much of Allen’s work over the past couple of decades (a notable exception being the lusty and charming “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” as well as the hypnotically morbid  “Match Point,” which hardly qualifies as a comedy).

Which brings us to “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” the latest downbeat bulletin from Allen, who continues to supply his fans with a pic per year. Although his new stab at comedy is apt to spread more cheer than the recent “Whatever Works” or “Cassandra’s Dream,” it’s definitely not a laugh-out-loud flick. Nor does it have anything novel, provocative or mischievous to add to our muddled grasp of the war between the sexes or to the hoary riddle of universal suffering and loss.

Kicking off with a cutesy narrative riff featuring a neutered-sounding voice—the first of many monotonous voiceovers meant to move the drab, nihilistic scenario forward—we are reminded that Shakespeare once wrote that life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Thus, the scene is set for the depiction of a series of failed relationships between mercenary, dishonest, conniving, borderline-criminal London dwellers and the budding union between a discarded senior-citizen wife and the elderly widower who woos her (these two individuals, though extremely naïve and devoutly unrealistic, are the sole innocents in the entire film, as well as the only characters with a true shot at a happy ending.)

Who are the self-defeating losers in this cold-blooded game of greed? Well, there’s the vain, wealthy, horny worm of a man played by Anthony Hopkins. He dumped his wife (Gemma Jones) when she failed to realize how decrepit she’d become and how spectacularly his machismo was soaring with the dawning of each new day. Naturally, it doesn’t take this Viagra-propelled tiger long to land—and marry—a torch-blonde gold digger, played by Lucy Punch (who soon becomes pregnant, thanks, almost certainly, to one of her platoon of not-so-gentlemanly callers).

In the meantime, Naomi Watts, as Hopkins’ shrewish daughter, is thinking of cuckolding her hubby (a best-selling first-time novelist who seems incapable of coming up with a sophomore hit.) He’s played by a surprisingly piggish Josh Brolin, and he's not about to waste time worrying about the possibility of Naomi ending up in the bed of her boss, a married art dealer whose specialty is collecting extramarital partners. (You probably won’t be surprised to learn this rascal is played by the perennially tricky Antonio Banderas.) The reason, we should point out, that devious Josh risks taking his eyes off Naomi is that he is so busy putting them on a beautiful, scantily clad musician in a neighboring apartment who plays her guitar late at night, and seldom pulls down the shade. Is it any wonder Josh is determined to ask this lyrical stranger out to lunch? The actress playing the soon to be lunched, dined, wined and ravished neighbor? Freida Pinto, the scrumptious leading lady of Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire.” And never mind that she's already engaged to an upstanding young Brit; he's totally disposable.

Of course, not every nasty deed perpetrated by these parasitic hustlers is rooted in sexual deceit. The literary lout played by Josh Brolin comes up with the inspired scheme to burglarize the digs of a friend he believes has been killed in a horrific car accident. Why the burglary? Because Brolin is the only living person to have read the recently completed—and totally brilliant--first novel of his friend. And Brolin knows exactly where the crucial manuscript has been stashed. After all these years, could the Boy Wonder once again be headed for the Best Seller list? Don’t be silly! It’s not that kind of movie.

The question is, why should we care about any of these pedestrian, self-absorbed leeches?  For the most part, they are boring beyond accepted norms. It’s quite clear that Woody Allen is not crazy about any of them, with the possible exception of the abandoned wife played by the wonderful Gemma Jones. With her lovely blue eyes, lilting voice and innate decency, she is an endearing marvel. On another level, the brassy, ballsy Lucy Punch rewards her writer-director with a smashing performance. Nor do Hopkins, Brolin, Watts and the rest of the cast disgrace themselves. Each, alas, has done much better in happier surroundings.

So what’s it all about, Woody? Next time out, won't you please give us a movie that's full of sound and fury but still manages to signify something? Now Playing