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Murderer's row

Movies | With Cassandra's Dream, Woody Allen returns to old themes and inevitable endings

Issue: "Signs and wonders," Jan. 26, 2008

Trading Manhattan's streets for those of London looked like the means to resurrect Woody Allen's career in 2005. After a long string of flops, Scarlett Johansson and a British setting for Match Point brought people to the theaters and promised to revitalize the filmmaker's lagging cinematic success. But the same casting and setting tricks ruined his follow-up Scoop, and his new film Cassandra's Dream retains not only a London setting but many of the predictable cinematic elements that led filmgoers to lose faith in him.

The film (rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexual material, and brief violence) follows two brothers-Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry (Colin Farrell)-who are reaching adulthood only to realize that they have not lived up to the promise of their dreams. The brothers are both going through financial problems when their rich uncle arrives in town, promising to end their woes in return for a small favor. And what's a little murder between brothers, anyway?

As Ian and Terry battle over whether and how to kill the man who threatens to ruin the gravy train that is their Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson), the film keeps one thing certain-this will not end well for either of them.

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Terry, a dumb but sweet mechanic, turns to gambling to buy the house he wants, to please the woman he plans to spend his life with. But when his luck turns, Terry has no backup plan. Ian, a social climbing dilettante who feels his intellect deserves more than simply running his father's restaurant, just wants some money for a poorly researched real estate venture in Los Angeles to finance the life he imagines with his new actress girlfriend Angela (Hayley Atwell).

Both men have reasons to take up their uncle's offer. But it is Farrell who manages to wring some actual emotion out of his character. Although he relies too heavily on his easily furrowed brow, Farrell's character benefits from a realistic predicament and the actor adeptly dissolves his character in the face of murder. Ian, the more resolute brother, chooses to kill a man simply to achieve the means to win over a woman who clearly views their relationship as a passing fling. McGregor's character comes off as a shallow amateur.

From the beginning, the film's denouement is spelled out for the audience. Philip Glass' score signals doom for the characters and their plans far more quickly than the script predicts, leaving the audience only to hope that the film's one relief-the final credits-will come sooner than it seems.

With little character arc or anticipation, the film plods through several plot points without the levity or charm that the similarly themed Match Point achieved. The brothers-one smart, one handy-both want to take shortcuts to achieve their goals. Their characters rarely step beyond the bounds of shallow social, racial, and religious stereotype, battling monotonous class warfare that Allen has excelled at for too long and imagines commonplace outside of the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

With its star cast and promising location, Cassandra's Dream may appease Woody Allen fans desperate for something new, but it seems destined to be forgotten.

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