Woody Allen's Latest Greek Allusions Don't Add Up To Much
Woody Allen obviously knows Greek history, or at least Greek theater and, more specifically, mythology. 1995's Mighty Aphrodite was permeated with it, including Greek choruses at Greek ruins. Ten years later, Melinda and Melinda was presented as a cinematic meditation on the critical debate founded in ancient Greek theater: Is life naturally comic or tragic? This year, he offers Cassandra's Dream, the title of which refers to the prescient Cassandra of Troy whose warnings of the future were never heeded; her tragic plight has become the modern "Cassandra complex," referring to situations when warnings are likewise ignored. In this case, those warnings come from Terry (Colin Farrell), a drunkard whose penchant for gambling results in him being pressured by relatives into committing murder. Allen's Grecian tropes are amusing enough when they work, but the legendary writer/director enjoys his references far too much, often to the detriment of his narratives, and this is the case with Cassandra's Dream, a tonally uneven, emotionally unsatisfying crime caper buoyed only by performances from Ewan McGregor and Farrell as brothers. If Allen had spent as much time making some of Dream's basic elements work as he did Terry's Cassandra-like protestations, then the movie might have been a success. Of course, then the title wouldn't be so clever.
The title also refers to a beat-up sailboat that Terry and Ian (McGregor) buy with some of Terry's gambling winnings. It's the one place where the working-class London brothers can escape the reality of their lives; Terry is a pretty mechanic with no aspirations, while older brother Ian, who helps run his father's restaurant, is a social climber with hopes of investing in a California hotel. This is Allen's third movie based in England, but it's the first starring only British actors, and their characters all conceive of America and, specifically, Hollywood as a magical place of wealth and entrepreneurial opportunity. The touch of irony, considering Allen's love/hate relationship with Hollywood and the fact that he's made four movies in a row overseas, is a nice touch for his fans, but the characters' misconceptions are also fueled by their nonpresent Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson). A wildly successful plastic surgeon with offices and homes around the world, including Los Angeles--but not his native London--Howard's generosity has benefited Ian and Terry's family for many years. When Terry's chronic gambling leaves him $180,000 in the hole, an unexpected visit from Uncle Howard makes him the perfect person to turn to for help, though his terms are steep. Howard offers to rescue Terry and, if that wasn't enough, loan Ian the money for his California adventure if the brothers snuff out a whistle-blower, Martin Burns (Philip Davis), whose testimony could land Howard in the clink.
Now, to the brothers' credit, neither wants any part of this. They're good boys at the end of the day, even if discontented with their stations in life. However, Ian has recently fallen head over heels for an untalented actress, Angela (Hayley Atwell), a social climber who is willing to use sex to get where she's going. Having already passed himself off as a real-estate man, her gullible lover--whom Angela might actually love in spite of her nature--promises to move her to Hollywood and introduce her to all of Uncle Howard's celebrity clients, which means Ian needs money, which means it's not long before he's pressing Terry to reconsider their uncle's offer. Terry still refuses, warning of what it will ultimately do to their souls, but, alas, the debt and the genuine desire to make his beloved girlfriend (Sally Hawkins) happy, by finally buying her the house his mechanic's salary will never afford, makes him consent to the scheme. The actual assassination that follows offers up Dream's only real thrills, thanks to the tautly choreographed sequence, though Philip Glass' score tries desperately to make the rest of the movie feel suspenseful. It isn't. Everything that follows is so cut and paste, so predictable, that the simple beauty of Farrell's performance--which reminds you of the actor he can be when he isn't playing super-villains or Greek conquerors--is lost in the tedium.