(director/writer: Woody Allen; cinematographer: Vilmos Zsigmond;; editor: Alisa Lepselter; cast: Antonio Banderas (Greg), Josh Brolin (Roy), Anthony Hopkins (Alfie), Gemma Jones (Helena), Freida Pinto (Dia), Lucy Punch (Charmaine), Naomi Watts (Sally), Pauline Collins (Cristal), Ewen Bremner (Henry Strangler), Roger Ashton-Griffiths (Jonathan, occult bookstore owner), Anna Friel (Iris), Zak Orth (narrator); Runtime: 98; MPAA Rating:R; producers: Letty Aronson/Stephen Tenenbaum/Jaume Roures; Sony Pictures Classics; 2010)

The slight pic benefits greatly from the talented ensemble cast that makes more of the tiresome dialogue than can be expected.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Woody Allen (“Match Point/”Cassandra’s Dream”/”Whatever Works”)writes and directs this whimsical tale about the flaws in people and how illusion serves as the best medicine but also can make fools of us. The lighthearted and emotional-free comedy/drama is a soap opera story with Allen’s usual arty pretensions, his keen ear for comedy, and his in-your-face mock sympathy for an unpleasant struggling author looking to find his muse. There are also various romantic entanglements that are led on by passion and ambition, flawed characters with wandering eyes, foolish older men chasing after much younger women and Woody’s philosophical belief that everything is pointless. The slight pic benefits greatly from the talented ensemble cast that makes more of the tiresome dialogue than can be expected. Woody this time takes his show to London, which is his fourth film set there.

It openswith Shakespeare’s quote from Macbeth about life being “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” A narrator (Zak Orth) acts as the film’s tour guide.

Helena (Gemma Jones) is an elderly woman who attempted suicide when her wealthy businessman hubby Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) left her after forty years of marriage to search for his lost youth, but is now helped by a fake fortune teller named Cristal (Pauline Collins) who gives her hope by telling her what she wants to hear. Losing all sense of reality, Helena makes all her life decisions based on the fortune teller’s predictions The matriarch’s bitchy daughter Sally (Naomi Watts), an art gallery worker and aspiring art dealer, is in a rocky marriage with the cynical American writer Roy (Josh Brolin), who has a medical degree but never practiced medicine. Roy’s first book had moderate success, but his last two novels bombed and is anxiously waiting to hear from his publisher about his latest manuscript–which seems to mean everything to him, as he worries that his life will be worthless if his book is not accepted. The argumentative couple only make ends meet with the financial help of Sally’s daffy mom.

Alfie loses all sense of reason and marries after a short courtship a greedy bimbo call girl named Charmaine(Lucy Punch), who is half his age and has nothing in common with him except in the bedroom. Meanwhile Sally fails to act on a crush she has on her boss, the married suave art gallery owner boss, Greg (Banderas), who ends up leaving his wife for Sally’s artist girlfriend Iris (Anna Friel). While Sally drifts apart from Roy, he becomes enamored watching from his window the mysterious beautiful Dia (Freida Pinto) play the classical guitar and undress. Her apartment is across his courtyard and faces the window in his workroom. Roy will eventually get the sweet girl (someone we never learn much about) to break off her marriage plans with her fiance, which greatly upsets his family in how this harsh rejection came when the wedding was already set.

All Woody can say about those cheating, which is almost everyone, is that it’s all pointless. Woody tells us life is just as comical, cruel, despairing, superficial and neurotic as one of his films. If you don’t believe that, catch all the Allen films from his top-notch ones to his bad ones to his so-so ones– like this one, and you’ll see the auteur has been consistent in his bankrupt nihilist message. If you expected something Shakespearean, all I can say is that you must have been misled by all the arty pretenses.

REVIEWED ON 10/19/2010 GRADE: B-