Nothing draws in hordes of old people like a new Woody Allen movie. The audience is largely composed of the same people every time, people who have learned to recognize the faithful constants — the jazzy score underlying the black-screened opening credits (this time, Leon Redbone’s “When You Wish Upon a Star”); the curly text headlining always-producer Letty Aronson (“his sister,” the woman sitting in the third row whispers to her husband); the beachy, peachy hues recalling a time and place that never existed; and, in recent years, the annoying voiceover narration opening the first scene that introduces the young protagonista, Sally (Naomi Watts, “King Kong”).

“You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger”

At the Michigan and Rave
Sony

Allen’s latest, “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” starts off swimmingly, following an artsy upper-crust British family, twisting and turning relationships with the ease of a French silk scarf. Crowded with almost as many stars as “Valentine’s Day,” the film is better introduced by the actors’ names rather than by the confusion of their characters’ — Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin (“Milk”) as her failed-author husband, Antonio Banderas (“Shrek”) as her sexy art gallery boss, Gemma Jones (“Bridget Jones’s Diary”) and Anthony Hopkins (“Beowulf”) as her recently divorced parents trying to stave off their inevitable decay into old age, Lucy Punch (“Hot Fuzz”) as Hopkins’s new wife and Freida Pinto (“Slumdog Millionaire”) as the alluring young neighbor.

To any newcomer, the mélange of star power might seem a bit overwhelming, but Woody has always been good with ensemble casts, and “Stranger” is no exception. And, at least for the first few moments, the director seems back in his prime, comfortably weaving through his well worn topics of discontent, neuroses and nebbish insecurity with relative success.

Feelings of cosmic insignificance in the universe? Check. The rise and fall of marriage? The tragedy of the conflicted writer? The supernatural as farce? Check, check, check. Granted, the chemistry between the lovers is kind of lacking, and the fights aren’t very tense, but you know, all that is forgivable — it’s a light enough movie to get by.

Then it ends. Seriously, it just ends. And what’s more, this is the gem “Stranger” chooses to close off with: “Sometimes, the illusion is better than the medicine.” What is that even supposed to mean? Never in the history of moviemaking has an ending been so sublimely ill-placed. Was Woody simply too lazy to come up with a proper third act for his latest film? Or, gasp, was he not capable of thinking of one?

Had it come from any other modern director, the film’s sparkling high points would certainly have overridden any negativity derived from the ending. Yet from Woody, it’s a certifiable flop. Sure, we get a few laughs, a few fresh faces (Lucy Punch is particularly promising as the prostitute-turned-diamond-swathed-trophy-wife of Hopkins, recalling the fervor and grace of a young, dizzy Mira Sorvino), some faithful droplets of neuroticism twisted into the central plot — all that stuff we’ve come to expect from every Woody Allen film since 1977.

Yet the thing that’s lacking in “Stranger” — that’s been lacking in every film since “Sweet and Lowdown” — is the brief leak of emotions, the chill of realization that’s the heart and soul of all Woody classics: Allen’s pregnant pause in “Annie Hall” before he mourns “Annie and I broke up;” the “What makes life worth living?” speech in “Manhattan;” Dianne Wiest’s soft and tender “I’m pregnant” in “Hannah and Her Sisters.” But what exactly have the aughts yielded for us? Murder and threesomes? Even the decade’s best, the nubile “Match Point” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” are missing that brief descent from sexy fantasy-romp into reality.

In fact, the absent ending isn’t so much an anomaly as a growing constant, as distasteful to the audience as the grating voiceover narrations. These items mark the tragic realization we all don’t want to admit: The world is no longer relevant to Woody. And what’s worse: Woody is no longer relevant to us.

Not that this news will make the flock of Woody aficionados attend any fewer of his films, as the numbers at the box office can attest to. When the film ended, there were claps in the audience, because there are always claps. When the lights went up, people stayed to watch the credits, because they always do.

With each new movie around the corner, all we really want to see is “the next great Woody Allen movie,” and we are willing to wait for it until the day we die. Maybe that masterpiece will come, and maybe it won’t, but in the meantime, all we can do is hold onto the constants — these glimmers of past greatness. Because for us, the illusion is better than the medicine, any day.

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