The Wood man's in a virulent mood, and it suits him. This inspired piece of misanthropy is a London-set dissection of two unhappily married couples: Alfie (Hopkins) has taken up with call girl Charmaine (the spectacular Lucy Punch); his wife, Helena (Jones), is drowning her sorrows in psychic malarkey; their daughter, Sally (Watts), is smitten with her boss (Antonio Banderas); and her schlub husband, Roy (Brolin), is tempted by a new, alluring neighbor (Freida Pinto).
It's a typical Allen gaggle, yet there's a focus and precision to the paces he puts the group through. With the expert aid of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, the writer-director gives the film a superficially romantic sheen that is perverted in scene after scene. Look at the way several gorgeous close-ups of Sally (pinpoint light catching her pupils) are counteracted by her grating indecisiveness, or how Alfie's flailing neediness makes him a fish out of water during an incredibly uncomfortable nightclub sequence. Beneath every luscious image is a nerve waiting to be jangled. Allen even reprises the transcendent final shot of Chaplin's City Lights---and his own Purple Rose of Cairo---so that he can further twist the knife on his characters's delusions.
Why does the film feel so essential? Perhaps because of that tall, dark stranger---whom Roy identifies in a tossed-off aside---lurking just outside the frame. It isn't the first time death has figured in an Allen movie, but the way he grapples with it here (leaving each character at a moment of irresolution comparable to staring down the man with the scythe) is much more potent and direct. This love letter to the Reaper and his unknowable timetable is a bracing addition to an erratic, yet indispensable oeuvre.
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