Maybe Woody Allen’s films once were funny. Now it’s as if he’s trying to spread his personal chronic sickness of anhedonia—that inability to enjoy what should naturally be pleasurable which has been a recurring theme in his work since Annie Hall—to his few remaining fans. If his latest film is any indication, it’s working.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, which just opened in theaters, offers the same message as his previous, failed film, Whatever Works: People believe in fantasy, whether religion or romance or ambition, in order to cope with the miserable world as it really is. In this movie, a woman named Helena (played by Gemma Jones), after her husband leaves her and she fails at a suicide attempt, starts relying on the advice of a fortune teller for consolation.
“This sounds so bleak when I say it, but we need some delusions to keep us going,” Allen explained in a recent interview.
And the people who successfully delude themselves seem happier than the people who can’t. I’ve known people who have put their faith in religion and in fortune tellers. So it occurred to me that that was a good character for a movie: a woman who everything had failed for her, and all of a sudden, it turned out that a woman telling her fortune was helping her.
“To me,” Allen says, “there’s no real difference between a fortune teller or a fortune cookie and any of the organized religions. They’re all equally valid or invalid, really. And equally helpful. . . . I have a grim, scientific assessment of it. I just feel, what you see is what you get.”
And that’s exactly the sense you get watching this movie: grim, grim, grim. Someone please check my pulse. The Grim Reaper may have visited. The prospect of laughing is hilarious. That, at least, would be some sign of life in this theater.
The closest the movie really gets is the clever reference explaining the film’s title. The scene shows Helena and her daughter Sally (played by Naomi Watts), with her husband Roy (Josh Brolin), arguing about the ridiculousness of Helena’s delusions. Roy mocks the fortune-teller’s stereotyped prediction, “You will meet a tall, dark stranger.” What’s more like it, he quips, is “You will meet the same tall, dark stranger that we all eventually meet.” The Grim Reaper, he means. Well, it was nice to have an intimation of humor.
The truth is that Allen’s theme, that life is meaninglessness and happiness a delusion, isn’t funny. At least, it isn’t funny here. The characters he’s parodying come off not as funny but as pathetic. They aren’t likeable in the slightest and are fools from the beginning, who don’t change or grow.
These are the kind of characters who have become his trademark: If at some point in their lives they find themselves happy, they’ll inevitably mess it up. The man will inevitably divorce the only woman he’s ever really loved, as Anthony Hopkins’ character does, for instance; the woman will inevitably nag her husband into hating her.
It’s Allen’s version of Original Sin: Never underestimate the human tendency to ruin their own paradise. Things may be good now, but the grass always seems greener on the other side. This isn’t an original story; it’s Aesop’s fable of the “Dog and His Reflection” on repeat.
And it could still be funny. But in Allen’s version of Original Sin, he cuts out free will. He denies human fault: If something went wrong for you, it was destined to go wrong; you couldn’t have helped it. You couldn’t have cherished that marriage or treated your spouse better or endured the tough times. There is no humor in that.
There’s one constant in Allen’s films, and that is that you are destined to sabotage the good things in your life, to have either a false sense of happiness or none altogether, and to die alone.
Which brings us back to death, Allen’s favorite obsession. Some of his past films were more successful at making lighthearted comedy of it, and were much more funny. Like Love and Death, which showed flashbacks to a young Woody Allen asking the Grim Reaper the big questions of life. Now, one gets a distinct sense he considers himself a tortured intellectual, suffering from the knowledge that life is meaningless and then we die. And that terrifies him.
Age seventy-four as this movie comes out, he was asked by a reporter, “How do you feel about the aging process?” He replied, “Well, I’m against it. I think it has nothing to recommend it. You don’t gain any wisdom as the years go by. You fall apart, is what happens.”
Not surprisingly, his movies follow the same trajectory: No one gains any wisdom, everyone falls apart, and there’s nothing to recommend the movies. Instead of watching a new story in each film, we see the same story: a static image of a depressed, aging, atheistic filmmaker. We see the artist, not the art. We see the story of Woody Allen and nothing else.
And that would be all right were it a good story. But it’s not. It’s the story of a man who cannot change in a universe that has no meaning. The story can’t move, the character can’t develop.
But if, as he says, ”the people who successfully delude themselves seem happier than the people who can’t,” why isn’t he fascinated by real people who have lived what appear to be joyful lives? Why isn’t their delusion interesting? Why doesn’t he look closely at the life of Dorothy Day or John Paul II or even the Dalai Lama, or some other self-professed joyful person of faith? Why doesn’t he look outside of himself for answers?
We can’t know for sure, but one gets the sense that fear plays a part. Even though he’s remarkably productive, making almost a film a year for 45 years, he admitted recently that making movies is “a distraction” that “keeps my mind off morbid thoughts.”
Making movies may distract him from his morbid thoughts, but in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, his morbid thoughts are the only things you’ll meet.
Mary Rose Somarriba is managing editor of First Things. Aesop’s “Dog and his Reflection can be found here.