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Naomi Watts can't decide between a tall dark stranger and a lamb roast
Jan 17th 2013 | Anthony Carew
Rest assured, Woody Allen’s going to keep making a film a year until he dies, and none of them will be even the slightest bit good.

It was all of last Rocktober that your old —yr bestest— pal Film Carew lamented that Woody Allen movies were bound to be on screens following the success (and/or: $ucce$$) of 2011's Midnight In Paris, which pleased audiences everywhere with its parade of historical art/literature titans reduced to unfunny caricatures. Now, the terror has gone retroactive: 2010's You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, initially left for dead, has been exhumed and revived for a spell in local cinemas. And whilst it's not nearly as hateful and horrendous as the recent To Rome With Love, it has a similarly thrown-together feeling; a handful of Allen's creepy-old-man-shoebox-full-of screenplay ideas squashed into a lumpy, uneven whole. Recounting the various hokey plot strands is too depressing, but I guess it's —in generous theory— a study of marriages ending and beginning, and people yearning for the new, then lamenting when they find it. Each was, likely, conceived as a standalone screenplay premise; and whilst we can be thankful Woodsy didn't make them all into movies, rest assured, he's going to keep making a film a year until he dies, and none of them will be even the slightest bit good. Such said, all these multi-plot squashing isn't always a blessing; in fact, one premise herein —struggling writer steals the manuscript from a deceased friend, passes it off as his own, bathes in the accolades, only to discover that his friend is actually only in a coma, and due to recover— that probably deserves its own movie, not the almost-incidentally-short shrift it gets here. Rather than explore any of the ideas with any kind of gravity or grace, Allen instead blithely blows through them all, treating every story as if a whimsical trifle; with the obligatory jaunty jazz score and overworked one-liners and overstated narration that one comes to expect from this most overrated of auteurs. You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger is, at best, Allen-by-numbers; with even those tired, tired fans of this painfully-prolific one-man-industry likely to lament having to suffer through it.

As producer, Judd Apatow has leant his name to so much stuff that the notion of an Apatovian aesthetic —all scatalogical man-boys and suffering women— isn't reflected by the totality of his vast, sprawling filmography. As writer/director, though, Apatow has only helmed a handful of passion projects: 2005's The 40-Year-Old Virgin; 2007's Knocked Up; 2009's Funny People; and, now, This Is 40. And, there, the similarities are plentiful; not least of all the recurring presence of his wife, Leslie Mann; nor the fact that each attempts to marry ribald, hard-R humour with sentimentality; nor the fact that each is, by any man's measure, way too long for their rom-com form. For those who've admired Apatow's attempts to give the romantic-comedy a sense of genuine spirit —and his determination to turn so many of his former Freaks & Geeks teens into Hollywood players— This Is 40 may be the moment where that admiration starts to turn; with even his past uneven, messy pictures looking like masterworks in comparison to the This Is 40, which inches closer to debacle with each passing frame. The film is effectively a spin-off from Knocked Up, though only tenuously; taking a pair of supporting characters —a husband/wife pair played by Paul Rudd and Mann, with on-screen children played by Apatow and Mann's own children— and building a film around then, with no reference to the past picture at all. The film is a meditation on middle-age and marriage, with all the standard subjects that come with. And whilst it's hard to doubt the film's honest portrayal of its main characters —reflections of author and muse that are, most often, utterly unflattering— so much of the film is spent erecting unnecessary dressing around its central drama. The film is, perhaps, making a commentary on how a relationship ceases to be about two people when it becomes a marriage, instead becoming all about children, in-laws, extended families, friends, et al. But, mostly, it seems like it's just in need of editing. Here, Apatow is disastrously drawn towards indulging in his worst tendencies; like groanworthy celebrity cameos (the worst, here, when the Philadelphia Flyers appear, introducing themselves as the Philadelphia Flyers, and guffawing hammily; it having the exact same feeling as the Harlem Globetrotters landing on Gilligan's Island), eye-gouging product placement, or completely unnecessary comic tangents starring his film's most minor characters. Chris O'Dowd, Jason Segel, and Megan Fox all barely belong in the picture, and yet a whole tedious, laughless scene is devoted to the two men fighting for a chance to try their luck with chatting her up in a swimming pool. O'Dowd —along with a completely underused Lena Dunham, doin' the boss a favour— play employees of Rudd, who runs a failing record-label in a supposedly-on-it portrait of the decaying record business. Yet evoking music-as-passion only highlights just how awful the music is herein; when Rudd waxes rhapsodic about the poetry of, um, Alice In Chains' Rooster, you know you're in for a skewed take on 'meaningful' music. Befitting a film called This Is 40, the soundtrack pipes in wall-to-wall middle-aged-male MOR; all sensitive acoustic strums and moaned Americana; attempting to find the heartfelt in, like, Ryan Adams (celeb cameo, natch). Its awful moments aren't nearly as awful as the worst bits of Funny People —like that extended cross-promotional sequence for MySpace, which is probably a thousand times more embarrassing with three years hindsight— yet there's none of that film's incisive reversals-of-genre, and moments of lacerating characterisation. It's a film, basically, of neither peaks nor troughs; settling in for a middle-brow portrait of middle-age that is constantly, unwaveringly, decidedly mediocre.

In the infamous Milgram Experiment, a Yale professor explored people's willingness to blindly follow authority figures, as a 'researcher' urged participants to administer electric shocks of increased voltage to a test subject in an adjoining room. There was, of course, no such subject, but a tape-recorded voice that cried out in pain with each administered shock. And yet, at the urging of the researcher (who was, of course, an actor), a majority of subjects continued to administer what would be deadly doses of electricity. The Milgram Experiment, and its dark commentary on complicity, lingers through Compliance, a based-on-a-true-story tale that, despite some flat direction and so-so acting, carries the dark weight of parable. In it, a call comes in at a fast-food franchise from an officer at a local police station, who claims that an employee has stolen money from a customer. From there, it's a slippery slope downwards into submission, degradation, and humiliation, as the 'officer' in question convinces the manager that her guilty employee needs to be strip-searched. Given that this con-is-on set-up is widely sold as plot synopsis —and anyone wanting to know more can easily google up the real life tale— there's a sense of leaden, nearly plodding procedure to the early frames. Not that writer/director Craig Zobel wastes any time kicking the narrative into gear: we're on the phone within five minutes. But, initially, there's a sense of annoyance at how these humans could be duped, and the keeping of the caller off-screen —thus preserving the 'reality' of the ruse— almost seems to suggest that the audience could be experiencing the same. Yet, Compliance takes a great turn after it finally submits the first big reveal: that the officer in question is, in fact, smirkin' Pat Healy, prank-caller extraordinaire, relishing every devilish details of his own Milgram Experiment. Most films trading on the Based On A True Story shtick are doing so for Inspirational purposes, their whole glow of this-really-happened! gunning for profundity but seeming essentially empty, as hollow as a softly-lensed Oprah special. Here, that truth behind the tale becomes more and more profound the further the film goes; Compliance becoming not some story of inspiring individualism, but a lacerating indictment of the species; not to mention a brilliant portrayal of corporate culture, its hierarchies, its monocultures, and its demand for blind obedience (of both employee and customer). The film eventually ends with a months-later coda, in which the manager in question attempts to defend her complicity by saying “I did what I was told to do”; as if this blind obedience somehow absolves her of her sins.


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