Crow all you want about the Noah Baumbachs and Darren Aronofskys making movies today, but as far as Brooklyn filmmakers are concerned, there are generally only two words in a conversation: Woody Allen.
With the release of “Cassandra’s Dream,” his 42nd film, though, the Midwood native continues down the course he set with “Match Point” in 2005. Gone are the quirky, oh-so-New-York films that made him famous (and even made moviegoers cringe, such as “Melinda and Melinda” from 2004), and in their place have grown moody, gray films that play out across London like episodes of “Law & Order” with a more attractive cast.
“Cassandra’s Dream” follows two brothers, played by Ewan McGregor (“Star Wars: Episode III,” “Moulin Rouge”) and Colin Farrell (“Miami Vice,” “Alexander”), whose big-money dreams are constantly being burst. Terry, played with surprising depth by Farrell, is a compulsively gambling mechanic who guzzles more whiskey than the cars he works on do gas, while Ian (McGregor) plans to become a hotelier but can barely handle managing the failing restaurant that their father runs.
After both brothers find themselves on the backside of a lucky streak — Ian’s met a foxy actress, played by newcomer Hayley Atwell (indeed, a foxy actress), but can’t make good on his lavish promises and Terry’s found himself $90,000 in the hole after a game of high-stakes poker. But their very rich uncle Howard, played by veteran Tom Wilkinson (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose”), who seems to be the sole point of contention between their quibbling parents, comes to town and, wouldn’t you know it, has a proposition for the boys.
Of the film, Allen has said, “It’s a tragic story with suspense,” and he’s right about the first part.
During Uncle Howard’s visit — scheduled between the opening of a plastic surgery office in China and a vacation in Thailand — the brothers hit him up for a loan, but instead of pulling out his checkbook, Howard counters with a plea for them to help him clean up some unpleasantness with a former employee who has grown chummy with investigators looking into Howard’s business.
The snitch can’t be bought, and Allen sets the scene so that the only way to deal with him can be bullets over Buckingham Palace.
With the grease beneath his fingernails and his endless pill popping, the audience might guess that Terry would be the brother willing to slay for pay, but as the brothers plot, bungle and then carry out the murder, it’s Ian whose icy cool prevails. (Should Daniel Craig meet a terrible fate, let it be said that McGregor might make a very smart Mr. Bond.)
So, while there was the expected back-and-forth between the brothers leading up to the homicide, the real problems don’t begin until afterward.
While Ian basks in the glory of his newfound wealth, buying his trampy paramour fancy earrings and taking meetings with very important-looking people, Terry wallows in despair, hitting the bottle harder than ever and practically dying to tell someone what he’s done. Farrell pouts and moans through the second half of the film, while McGregor’s Ian frets about how to control him while keeping his clueless girlfriend Kate (Sally Hawkins) from taking him to a shrink.
Things quickly unravel from here as Terry begins to contemplate suicide or, worse, turning himself in.
Allen’s picture doesn’t fall completely flat — although it has gone straight to DVD in Germany. The score, by Philip Glass, and the cinematography are lovely, and the acting, for the most part, is well done. What I found lacking was a plot to get hooked on. There’s very little in the way of narrative turns that leap from the audience’s first guess, and worst of all, there’s really nobody to root for.
Ian is slick and likeable, but his cold pursuit of material things doesn’t endear him to the viewer. And Terry’s so messed up that three-quarters of the way through the movie, I stopped feeling any sympathy for him at all.
While it’s plain to see that Allen has turned a corner in his storytelling, and should be applauded for not resting too much on his laurels, “Cassandra’s Dream” wasn’t the same as mine when I walked into the theater.
“Cassandra’s Dream,” directed by Woody Allen, opens on Jan. 18 at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema (143 E. Houston St. at Forsythe Street in Manhattan) and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas (1886 Broadway at West 62nd Street in Manhattan). For show times, call (212) 777-FILM.