By Matt Singer
[Photo: Colin Farrell in “Cassandra’s Dream,” Weinstein Company, 2007]
Each new Woody Allen movie should be looked at as if it were a cinematic Venn diagram. His latest film always lies at the intersection of two or three of his older ones. In the case of “Cassandra’s Dream,” it’s a mix of “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and the first picture from Allen’s English excursion, “Match Point.” From the former, Allen reexamines the morality of murder, as well as the nature of God and punishment; from the latter, Allen returns (just two years later) to the debate over luck versus fate and the violent pursuit of upward mobility. In standup comedy terms, he’s not really writing new material, he’s just reshuffling how he delivers his old stuff, and his delivery, in this case, is agreeable, if fairly predictable.
The title derives from the name of a boat, owned by two lower class English brothers Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry (Colin Farrell), which was itself coined from a 60-to-1 longshot that came in for Terry at the horse track. Ian’s a gambler too though he works at their father’s restaurant, he’s constantly meeting with investors about high-risk, high-reward ventures. As the film begins, Terry’s on a wild streak of luck, but it ends along with the first act and suddenly, he’s deep in debt and goes to Ian for help. But Ian needs money too to finance a move out to California with his new actress girlfriend Angela (Hayley Atwell) so both look to their rich Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson) to bail them out of trouble.
The true nature of Uncle Howard and the details of his offer are too crucial to the plot to spoil here; suffice it to say, they don’t involve a low interest loan. What Terry and Ian actually do is probably less important, anyway, than what they are willing to do and why they’re willing to do it. Money is the quick, obvious answer, but Allen’s themes go deeper than that. In “Cassandra’s Dream,” characters repeatedly refer to having a life here, but wanting to do something in a non-specific there. Terry and Ian’s day-to-day are full of obligation to marker holders or loved ones. “Cassandra’s Dream” represents a sort of symbolic release from that world, but Uncle Howard’s proposal, distasteful as it might be, gives them the chance for real freedom.
It’s possible to read that sort of desire into Allen’s own move to England in 2005 after almost 30 years of shooting exclusively in New York City. Maybe he was truly stuck in Manhattan certainly, the transatlantic change has done his reputation and commercial reputation well. Still, I’m not entirely sure why he’s stayed this long. Is it callous to assume that he’s still working in Europe only because that’s where people still go see his movies in large numbers? Who knows? Regardless, McGregor and Farrell’s working class accents sound totally flimsy (though that could just as easily be a product of Allen’s flimsy working class dialogue). Given that, and Allen’s occasionally contentious relationship with the critical community, it’s difficult not to see something in one character’s line about how looking closely at something will always “reveal all its nasty imperfections.”
The imperfections are there whether Allen wants us to see them or not. So are the obvious parallels to Allen’s earlier work. Whether that’s a good or bad thing will depend upon your viewpoint young viewers who are just learning about Allen and haven’t seen his 1980s work might find “Cassandra’s Dream” refreshing; devoid of a larger comparative context, it works pretty well. Auteurists looking for overarching themes will find plenty to work with here as well; to them, the obvious repetitions of theme and subject matter will be a plus rather than a minus.
But a less macro-minded Woody Allen fan one wise enough to accept the director whether he’s working blue or blue blood might want a little more originality, particularly because prior knowledge of the director’s filmography spell out some of the story’s twists well before they’re revealed onscreen, which takes some of the wind out of “Cassandra’s Dream”‘s sails. Some level of repetition is probably inevitable for any director working as long as Allen, but some level of freshness is desirable regardless of a filmmaker’s decades of experience. You could make a Venn diagram out of this as well authorial voice in one circle, innovation in another, and in the middle, the ideal movie.