Have you noticed that it’s a lot easier to find older men in the movies than older women — in front of the camera and behind it?
Take Woody Allen. As he glides toward 80 he’s still in the same old mode of portraying relationship angst, unfolding in niiice European locations. Tirelessly, he has sat at the cinematic spinning wheel producing bolt after bolt of Allen-brand fabric as his leading ladies (and occasionally onetime partners) come and go. Mia Farrow made her exit a long time ago, while Scarlett Johansson moved on to “The Avengers.” But there’s always another gorgeous, talented young lass waiting in the wings.
Not all Allen films are created equal. His latest to reach Japan, 2010’s London-set “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” hails from the drawer containing “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” and “Hollywood Ending” — so it’s not one of his best. On the other hand, had a newbie director made it, the Sundance people (if not the Oscar judges) would be mightily tickled. It’s not easy being Woody Allen: He’s past the point where just being himself is cause for praise or celebration.
But the Allen cachet works when it comes to assembling a cast, and here the star wattage could rival a nuclear power station. Anthony Hopkins plays the 70-something Alfie, suffering from a severe belated midlife crisis. Alfie abandons his wife of many years, Helena (Gemma Jones), in a dubious effort to recover his youth. He switches to a sports car, hooks up with call girl Charmaine (Lucy Punch) and pops Viagra like candy between his expensively whitened teeth.
Hopkins ditches his usual dignified manner to play this role. Gerard Depardieu once said that no actor over 60 should be made to do love scenes, but Hopkins plunges into them with a determined professionalism.
Jones as Helena is in a much better position to enjoy herself. She almost recalls Farrow as she flutters around the screen like a dazed moth, venting sadness and frustration at a fortune-teller named Cristal (Pauline Collins). “You are entering a period of great fulfillment,” Cristal assures a tearful Helena. Can you blame the poor woman for wanting to believe it?
The Alfie-Helena saga runs parallel to the story of the couple’s daughter Sally and her novelist husband Roy (played by Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin). Sally is disappointed with Roy, who has been working on his second novel forever, while Roy is feeling hounded by his wife and suffocated by major writer’s block, fueling his ego by spying on a gorgeous young neighbor across the way (Freida Pinto) as she undresses in front of an open window. He succeeds in getting her to a swank restaurant for lunch and leers, “You inspire me.” True to Allen’s formula, she’s all smiles and perky rejoinders; in Woody’s world, out-of-work losers always get the girl.
Still, you have to admire Allen, if only because he continues to be enthralled by this thing called love (or more often, lust). Helena, for all her pained disillusionment over her marriage to Alfie, still believes in it as the fast route to happiness, and encourages Sally to go after her handsome boss, Greg (Antonio Banderas) — whatever the outcome.
You get the feeling that Allen isn’t as pessimistic as he likes to seem. Witness how Alfie launches a full-frontal attack on old age. And how he sweetly ensconces himself in the conviction that love is — or had better be — the cure-all.