When it comes to the British writer-director Mike Leigh, I have a series of likes and dislikes that will strike some as perverse. His most popular films tend to leave me cold. Secrets & Lies (1996), for instance, was the first movie I ever saw at the Cannes Film Festival (back in 1996), and I thought then, and still think now, that it’s an irritatingly sitcomish, bloke-ified Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, with Brenda Blethyn in a performance as annoying as it is brilliant. (I know that’s supposed to be the point, but annoying isn’t a quality that allows for a lot of ambiguity.) I thought Naked (1993) made nihilism as heavy as an anvil, and two years ago, in Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), though I enjoyed Sally Hawkins’ cockeyed-optimist performance, by the time the driving instructor who it was obvious from the get-go was a head case was revealed to be a head case, I felt bludgeoned, hectored, and, yes, annoyed. I tend to prefer Leigh’s quieter films, like the sublime Topsy-Turvy (1999) or the wily and touching Career Girls (1997). So when I say that I loved Another Year, the Leigh film that just premiered at Cannes, members of the Leigh cult should consider themselves warned: The movie has precious little in the way of shrieking, didactic working-class sanctimony, or cheaply lovable over-the-top gags.
What it does have is an overwhelming bittersweet melancholy at the passing of life from middle age into…well, I guess you could call it late middle age, but then you’d be falling into the self-deceptive trap shared by the movie’s characters, who will do anything to avoid the realization that the cold and nasty word for the condition they’re heading towards is…old. (You know, the condition that happens to other people.)
This time, Leigh doesn’t bother with the pretense of a story; like a more boisterous Eric Rohmer, he simply splits the movie into four seasonal chapters over the course of a year, thereby liberating it from the clank of narrative. It’s touching to see Ruth Sheen, so memorable in the first Leigh film to be released in the U.S., High Hopes (1988), now with graying hair and sagging jowls, but with her rabbity grin as beatific as ever. She’s teamed with that marvelous rascal Jim Broadbent (that’s them, above, with Oliver Maltman). The two play a vaguely bohemian couple who have found and held onto that fragile thing — happiness — as they watch the friends and relatives who cluster around them make far less successful stabs at it.
And what a randomly moving collection of troubled, romantic, confused, world-weary, stubbornly deluded souls they are! The characters, between big gulps of wine, specialize in that scalding English thing, “taking the piss” out of each other, but there’s no mockery in Leigh’s view, only grace. At times, the movie is like the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” turned into a startlingly humane comedy. Amid the usual Leigh slew of lived-in performances, one of the actors achieves greatness: Lesley Manville, who plays Sheen and Broadbent’s most regular, and desperate, Saturday night dinner companion, a fragile, sozzled, enthusiastically needy secretary who has been coyly girlish, and drunk, for so long that she has no idea the loneliness she’s seeking to escape is of her own devising. The final shot is just her face, staring, as everyone else babbles away at the dinner table, and it’s one of the most haunting, volumes-speaking final shots in the history of cinema.
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The atrociously titled You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is one of Woody Allen’s “fables” — which could almost be code, at this point, for the flavorless, dry-cookie thing that results when he writes and directs a comedy on autopilot. The film is notable, if that’s the word, for being the first movie Allen has made in London that is every bit as bad as his most awful New York comedies, like Anything Else and Melinda and Melinda.
There should, by now, be an award for worst actor forced to impersonate Woody Allen in a Woody Allen film. I would probably give the award to Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity (with Scarlett Johansson as a close runner-up in Scoop). But if Josh Brolin, in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, doesn’t quite enter the make-it-stop stratosphere of whiny fumbly stuttering embarrassment, he’s still got to be the least likely actor ever to play a faux-Woody neurotic intellectual. When he has to say a line like “I’m a nervous wreck,” Brolin doesn’t look nervous. He looks like he wants to punch someone out. Maybe the director.
Wearing, for some reason, an early-’80s shaggy disco coif that makes him look like an angry Harry Hamlin, Brolin plays an expatriate American physician-turned-novelist (don’t ask) who has one successful book to his credit, but now his well has gone dry. He and Naomi Watts, as a British-born art-gallery assistant, are stuck in a sniping marriage, and you know what happens in a bad Woody film when people are miserably hitched: They seek liberation! Crazy love! With sexy-time fantasy mates! Played by exotic, even “foreign” actors! (In this case, Antonio Banderas and Slumdog Millionaire‘s Barbie-doll beautiful Freida Pinto.) Cast as love objects so idealized they might as well be made of wax! Meanwhile, Watts’ mother (Gemma Jones), abandoned by her husband, becomes adicted to the musings of a sham psychic (how outrageous!), and her ex-mate, played by Anthony Hopkins, becomes another one of Woody’s aging-bachelors-who-lands-a-young-babe-who-has-never-even-heard-of-Kierkegaard. In this case, however, when the white-haired Hopkins falls for a vulgar statuesque platinum-blonde Cockney hooker played by Lucy Punch, the two are so jaw-droppingly ill-matched that it’s like watching the love affair of Alan Arkin and Lady Gaga.