Desperate times, deadly measures

Maybe Woody Allen is getting soft in his old age. The guy’s been making movies for the better part of 40 years, after all, releasing new material at the relatively breakneck pace of one film per year.

Maybe Woody Allen is getting soft in his old age. The guy’s been making movies for the better part of 40 years, after all, releasing new material at the relatively breakneck pace of one film per year.

Thus, the release of a new Allen picture generally marks an annual tradition for Allen’s detractors to criticize and his fans to fawn over. And his newest, Cassandra’s Dream, doesn’t escape this fate.

But while the film covers a lot of the same cynical, morally ambiguous territory as some of Allen’s past work (particularly his 2005 film Match Point), it sets itself apart with a broader range of humanity.

The story is simple: Two honest if down-on-their-luck brothers, Ian and Terry, dream of a better life than what their humble existence in middle-class London can provide. Ian has aspirations of success through a somewhat suspect real-estate deal, while Terry makes ends meet working at a garage but suffers from alcohol and gambling addictions.

The brothers get in financial binds and with nowhere left to turn, appeal to their rich, worldly uncle Howard (brilliantly played by the never-off Tom Wilkinson), who is more than happy to help them out–that is, if they off a whistleblower who’s going to ruin Howard’s career by squealing.

The film differs from Allen’s other work because it focuses on grit and emotion rather than the glitz and the cynicism of Match Point or 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. Ian and Terry, most of the time played well by Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell, are real, down-to-earth characters with dreams of everyday success. Gone are the private English country houses and shooting parties of Match Point. The brothers’ sense of honest desperation is palpable and develops well as they’re forced to make some difficult choices.

That desperation is also arguably what keeps the film going. Unlike in so many other movies that cover the same idea, Ian and Terry do not come away from their actions morally unscathed. Rather than glossing over the aftereffects, Allen takes his time carefully distilling the brothers’ emotional consequences, breaking away from the (now somewhat cliché) trend of turning ordinary characters into psychologically immune killers.

The brothers both come to terms with their situation quite differently, and the ways in which they react and change is one of the strong points of the film. Family plays a large role in this film, and psychologically, it shows.

With all its subtleties, the film could have easily derailed under a lesser director. Thankfully, even with slow, deliberate pacing, Allen doesn’t disappoint. McGregor and Farrell bring life and polish to their characters with little effort. Farrell in particular is worth mentioning: Though his cockney may not be perfect, his performance as the guilt-ridden Terry is rivaled only by Tom Wilkinson.

Wilkinson’s turn as the logical Howard is stirring, if understated, rousing the brothers with orations on the importance of blood ties. Everything here is almost understated to the point where the actors simply embody their characters, giving the film a surprising resonance.

Which isn’t to say that Cassandra’s Dream is not without its flaws. Ian’s romantic interest, Angela, seems underdeveloped, and she is rarely used. It is never really made that clear exactly how serious her relationship with Ian is. As a femme fatale, she could have made for an interesting subplot if the film had an extra 30 minutes to play with.

There also seem to be some story threads that could have been expounded on. Howard’s predicament in particular seems glossed over; we feel the effects but not the causes of the problems in the story. The film could have benefited from a little more psychological exposition from the brothers after Howard makes his proposition instead of just diving right in. The ending also feels a little abrupt, which lessens some of its impact.

Those expecting Cassandra’s Dream to be the next Allen masterpiece will likely be disappointed. But that doesn’t mean the film should be discounted. In his words, he wrote a story about two nice boys and the things that go wrong in their lives. The “nice” is the catch–Woody’s trying something a little different. Unlike Match Point, Cassandra’s Dream is more about making the wrong choice for the right reasons.