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Actors love Allen movies, even bad ones

Don't even bother wondering. I don't blame you if you ask "How on earth does Woody Allen get people like Anthony Hopkins, Josh Brolin, Naomi Watts and Antonio Banderas to appear in such mediocre comedies?" Forget it. The answer couldn't be simpler.

Where else, you might ask, is Hopkins going to get a comic role playing a wealthy old fool who dresses in rich-man’s white, splits with his wife, pops Viagra like Tic Tacs, and marries a young call girl? Who else is going to ask Brolin to play a horny, played-out novelist who wears ancient Roman conspirator bangs? How many other filmmakers do you think want Banderas to play a weary, quiet and sophisticated London art dealer?

I’ll grant you that Watts might have others who would let her play a restless wife who wants a better career, a mother who drinks less and a more attentive lover than her self-involved husband. But only Allen would be likely to explore such a woman in psychological detail.

Actors love Allen movies. Sometimes, the lines and stories are great, sometimes not. But the roles are almost always fresh, or at least juicy and ripe for actorly embellishment.

For all that, “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” is very minor Allen. Those who speculated that filming in Europe gave him a new lease on creative life in “Match Point” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” are going to have to face the fact that London does nothing special, to put it mildly, for “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.”

Oh sure, it gave him British stage actress Gemma Jones to play Hopkins’ first wife. And it gave him actress Lucy Punch to play the hooker who becomes his ravenously acquisitive second wife, a sinkhole into which are poured enough luxurious gifts to almost break her husbandly benefactor.

That latter is no small attraction in “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.” Whatever it signifies about Allen the man (nothing good, most likely), he has a gift for directing beautiful young actresses to play leggy and deliciously comic bimbos and floozies. Think of Mira Sorvino, who won an Oscar in “Mighty Aphrodite.” Punch isn’t quite that good, but she certainly brightens the movie whenever she’s on screen.

So do Brolin and Watts, playing a couple in progressive trouble as each one’s career stagnates. Brolin, as a novelist whose new book nobody wants, seems especially happy to be in the kind of film no one else would ask him to be in – one where he can quote William Carlos Williams to his wife and spy out his window at Freida Pinto, as his inamorata who plays Boccherini on the guitar.

His wife, in turn, has a much- suppressed hankering for her boss, the unhappily married gallery owner played by Banderas.

Hopkins plays Watts’ father, Jones her mother, who has now taken to listening to the richly fraudulent sooth-sayings of a “psychic” named Crystal. It is Jones, the aging and bibulous ex-wife who is, more or less, the target of the comic prediction in the movie’s title.

It’s certainly fun to see a rare comic opportunity for Hopkins. And even though he’s canny enough not to overdo any comic scene — e.g. waiting for his Viagra to kick in — Hopkins is largely wasted in the film. The shotgun marriage of Allen and Hopkins promised more than this – at least to me, anyway.

There is no Allen movie entirely without its witty lines or its compelling actorly turns. He’ll be 75 in December, and he has been making movies for so many decades that his audiences have learned how to make do with lesser excursions into Woody World.

It’s an easy place to visit. But this time, it’s just as easy to leave.

‘You will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger’

** 1/2

Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin, Antonio Banderas

Director: Woody Allen

Running Time: 1:38

Rating: R; language

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