Film Reviews: Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Money troubles drive Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell to drink and plot murder in Cassandraís Dream.
Cassandraís Dream
Starring Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell. Written and directed by Woody Allen. Rated PG-13. Now playing.
Bad Omens

Even with great performances and direction, Cassandraís Dream still takes on water.


The word has been atypically slow getting out about Woody Allenís latest thriller Cassandraís Dream. Released at the end of last year for awards consideration, the film got tepid initial reviews in L.A. and New York and wasnít even screened for North Texas critics in time for us to vote on it. Plus, it has a terrible title. These are surefire signs that this is one of Woodyís stinkers, right? Well, no. Itís not one of his best movies, either, but itís an interesting failure.
The main characters are Ian and Terry (Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell), sons of an ailing two-bit London restaurateur (John Benfield). Terryís an auto mechanic who likes to play the dogs and fancies himself a cardsharp until he buys his way into a high-stakes game and winds up almost $180,000 in debt. Ian, no less fatally, has expensive tastes and dreams of getting out from behind his dadís restaurant counter by investing in a California resort hotel. When they receive an unexpected visit from their rich Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson), a plastic surgeon with his own chain of clinics, the brothers see an opportunity to hit him up for money. Uncle Howard is happy to oblige ó all they have to do is kill somebody for him.
The performances alone make the movie worth checking out. Farrell gets off to a wobbly start ó his scruffy acting style makes him much better suited to playing American guys than English blokes. However, he looks quite convincing when Terry unravels from the strain and turns into an alcoholic, pill-popping wreck. Farrell makes a telling contrast with McGregor, who carries off his part with an awe-inspiring light touch. Ian seems too smart and resourceful to get snared in a plot like this, but McGregor captures the characterís unbearable itch to leave south London and his weakness for fast cars and beautiful women. Opposite them, Wilkinsonís role basically comes down to one showpiece scene in the middle of the film, where he meets the brothers in a rain-soaked park and proposes the murder. The desperation and rage born of Howardís sense of entitlement radiate from this actor until you canít look anywhere else. Just as he did in Michael Clayton and other movies before this, Wilkinson proves his flair for portraying middle-aged guys whoíve made one too many compromises. All the roles that Gene Hackman was playing 20 years ago, Wilkinson is playing now, and heís doing them superbly.
Aside from the acting, Allenís still-underrated skill as a creator of suspense is the best thing here. The murder plot is good for two excellent, sweaty, dread-laced sequences when the brothers try to carry out the killing ó one where they get into their targetís flat and try to ambush him, the other when they follow him through the streets late one evening as he strolls home from his motherís house. The same unerring sense of timing that makes Woody Allenís best comedies so funny serves him well when he decides to turn the screws.
These are considerable strengths, but everything else about Cassandraís Dream is weak. For starters, the dialogue is awfully clunky. When Allenís powers of characterization are at a low ebb like they are here, he spells everything out for us ó his way of letting us know that Ian stays at the restaurant only out of love for his dad is to have Ian tell his dad, ďI stay here because I love you.Ē The scenes between the brothers and their parents are heavy with this kind of literal-minded stuff. Worse, thereís also a lot of tedious philosophizing about the role of fate in human lives and whether Godís law is being broken. Itís nothing we havenít heard before, itís nothing we havenít heard from Woody Allen before, and it dilutes a two-hour film that should have been 90 minutes of concentrated power.
Also diluting the film is a romantic subplot between Ian and a struggling actress (sultry newcomer Hayley Atwell), which takes up a lot of the early going, then hardly develops at all in the filmís second half. The desire to keep this high-maintenance girl in fine style is supposed to help drive Ian to crime, and he keeps going on about how mad he is for her, but the two actors have no chemistry together. In Allenís earlier Match Point, you believed that Jonathan Rhys Meyers would jeopardize everything for Scarlett Johansson and the hot sex they were having together. Thereís nothing like that here.
Cassandraís Dream suffers from proximity not only to Match Point but also to Before the Devil Knows Youíre Dead, a much better crime thriller about two brothers who drag each other down through their human frailties. This filmís siblings have their tragic final confrontation on a sailboat, and the ending seems overdetermined (though just about any other ending would probably have come off the same way) and arrives too suddenly. All the good work that goes into Casandraís Dream is well worth seeing. Itís just a shame that the movie makes so little impact.

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