Woody Allen obviously knows Greek history, or at least Greek theater, and its mythology. Mighty Aphrodite (1995) 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 us 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, which is the case with Cassandra's Dream, a tonally uneven, emotionally unsatisfying crime caper buoyed only by performances from Ewan McGregor and Farrell as working-class brothers in London. 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 more successful.
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 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 Los Angeles in particular, as a magical place of wealth and entrepreneurial opportunity. The irony, considering Allen's love/hate relationship with Hollywood, is a nice touch for his fans, but the characters' misconceptions are also fueled by their non-present Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson).
A wildly successful plastic surgeon with offices and homes around the world, 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, but 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.
To the brothers' credit, neither wants any part of this. They're good guys at the end of the day, even if they're discontented with their stations in life. Ian, however, has recently fallen head over heels for an untalented actress (Hayley Atwell), a social climber who is willing to use sex to get where she's going. Which means Ian needs money.
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 a tautly choreographed sequence. Everything that follows is 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 amid the tedium. Grade: C-
Opens Feb. 1. Check out theaters and show times, see the film's trailer and find nearby bars and restaurants here.