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Cassandra's Dream
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Double Fault"
3 stars

The good news about Woody Allen’s “Cassandra’s Dream” is that it is nowhere near as bad as his recent string of duds. The bad news is that it is nowhere near as good as his finest films have shown him to be capable of over the course of his long and distinguished career. That probably isn’t the fairest thing in the world to say since even if you factor in his decidedly uneven output of the last decade or so, you still have a filmography studded with more consistently great works (besides such obvious titles as “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan” and “Hannah and Her Sisters,” I would also include such lesser-seen gems as “Stardust Memories,” “Everyone Says I Love You,” “Deconstructing Harry” and the flat-out masterpiece “The Purple Rose of Cairo”) than virtually any other American filmmaker not named Scorsese who has been working during that same period of time. The problem is that Allen has become so insanely prolific of a filmmaker (since 1969, he has made 37 features and 1991 was the last year that didn’t see him release at least one new film) that it sometimes feels as if he is trying to make some kind of self-imposed quota than creating and executing a story that he really wants to tell. Although there is nothing really wrong with his latest effort, it lacks any sense of freshness or urgency and it too often seems as if he is just going through the motions instead of trying to do something truly inventive

Like Allen’s last couple of films, “Cassandra’s Dream” eschews his beloved Manhattan for the streets of London. It stars Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell as Ian and Terry, a couple of close-knit brothers who seem to be happy enough but who both have ambitions of doing better for themselves–while toiling away at his parents’ failing restaurant, Ian is developing any number of get-rich-quick schemes involving real estate while Terry spends the money he makes as a mechanic (and some that he doesn’t) on gambling jags in which he has been surprisingly successful. Before too long, however, both brothers find themselves in dire need of money–Terry has hit a cold streak that has left him 90,000 pounds in debt while Ian needs almost the same amount in order to invest in a string of hotels in California and to squire around Angela (Hayley Atwell), a gorgeous young actress that he met while driving around in a sports car he borrowed from Terry’s shop. Luckily for them, they have one possible salvation in the form of Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson), a wildly successful plastic surgeon in the U.S. who has cheerfully helped out the family on many occasions in the past, much to the chagrin of their poor-but-proud father (John Benfield).

When Uncle Howard serendipitously arrives in town a couple of days later for a brief visit, they explain their respective situations and ask him for his aid. Instead of immediately agreeing to help them, as he has done so many times in the past, Howard surprises the boys by admitting that he is having a bit of trouble of his own–there is an upcoming financial review of his business that could uncover certain improprieties that he would just as soon not see revealed if at all possible–and asking them in turn to do him a certain favor, one that I won’t reveal but one that you can probably guess, that will ensure that these revelations are not made public. After all, he has helped them and their parents out many times in the past and the least they could do to show them his gratitude is to perform this one simple task. Naturally, the brothers are initially appalled by what Uncle Howard is asking them to do in the name of family but after a brief crisis of conscience, the more aggressively ambitious Ian agrees to do it and the more emotional Terry winds up going in as well. After some planning, a few false starts and a couple of unexpected hiccups, they carry out the deed and for a while, everything seems fine. Before long, however, the more emotional Terry begins to crack from the pressure and guilt and starts making noises about going to the police and confessing everything. This, of course, leads to another long conversation between Ian and Uncle Howard (“I just don’t see any alternative.”) and a boat trip involving the two siblings that may be the most fateful one seen in a film since Fredo went fishing on Lake Tahoe at the end of “The Godfather Part II.”

With its combination of a London setting and a serious-minded storyline involving guilt, murder, betrayal, beautiful actresses, greed and ironic twists of fate, “Cassandra’s Dream” (the portentous title is derived from a boat that the two brothers buy during happier times early in the film) will no doubt remind many viewers of Allen’s last critical and commercial success, the 2005 hit “Match Point.” (Some may also pick up on certain similarities between it and Sidney Lumet’s recent “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.”) Although “Match Point” was brilliantly written, directed and acted, one of the reasons that it struck such a chord with people was because it found Allen stepping outside of his usual comfort zone, both narratively and geographically, and the thrill of doing something new seemed to energize him in a way that hadn’t been evident in most of his recent efforts. The problem with “Cassandra’s Dream” is that it is so similar in many aspects to “Match Point” that everything that seemed fresh a couple of years ago now seems kind of stale–it is as if he has climbed out of one rut only to dig another one for himself. I understand that originally, Allen was scheduled to make an entirely different movie, a romantic comedy with Michelle Williams and David Krumholtz, and when that project fell through for various reasons, he quickly wrote “Cassandra’s Dream” in order to get something up and running. I don’t want to suggest that the film is a complete rehash from top to bottom but as the story goes along, there is the unmistakable sense that Allen is just treading water this time around.

And yet, even though it lacks any real inspiration, “Cassandra’s Dream” does have a few worthwhile things going for it–maybe not enough to make it worth watching but certainly enough of them to keep the film from completely devolving along the lines of his worst work as a filmmaker. For one thing, the performances are strong all across the board–McGregor and Farrell play off of each other quite wonderfully as the formerly close brothers whose relationship is torn apart in the name of family, Tom Wilkinson turns in yet another solid bit of work as the blandly monstrous Uncle Harold, a man who seems affable enough but who is willing to do anything it takes to save his own skin and newcomer Hayley Atwell makes such an impression as the ambitious starlet who inadvertently leads Ian astray (though she isn’t exactly a gold-digger per se) that you’ll find yourself wishing that Allen had figured out a way to make her a little more integral to the plot.

I also enjoyed the moments when the story zigs from straight drama into deadpan black comedy (especially in a party scene in which the brothers are distracted by an especially unexpected guest)–again, these moments have a vitality to them that will make you wish that Allen had taken a little more time in the screenwriting phase in order to explore the idea a little further. If he had done this instead of simply slapping something together in order to make his film-a-year quota, “Cassandra’s Dream” might have turned out to be a good-to-great film instead of a work whose central virtue is that it isn’t as bad as “Curse of the Jade Scorpion.”

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originally posted: 01/18/08 16:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/14/08 mr.mike Ebert disliked the ending , I found it realistic. 4 stars
1/25/08 Ramzi Abed Woody tackling film noir and keeping it psychological. A real gem. 5 stars
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  18-Jan-2008 (PG-13)
  DVD: 27-May-2008



Directed by
  Woody Allen

Written by
  Woody Allen

  Ewan McGregor
  Colin Farrell
  Hayley Atwell
  Tom Wilkinson
  Mark Umbers
  Sally Hawkins

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