"I do think the writing is pessimistic — all that stuff about life being a tragic experience," says Angela Stark (Hayley Atwell) early in Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream. An actress talking about a play she's in, Stark might as well be describing Allen's film, his 38th as writer-director and arguably the bleakest morality play in the bunch. From the Greek-tragedy overtones of its title to the furious string arrangements of its score, Cassandra's Dream announces even before the opening credits are over that everyone in the movie is uniformly screwed.
This is the third film Allen has made in London, following 2005's Match Point and 2006's Scoop, and it closely follows the template of Match Point, in which an ambitious young tennis pro refuses to let murder slow down his rapid ascent in the British class system. This time, Allen gives us not one but two kids from the wrong side of the Thames — brothers Terry (Colin Farrell) and Ian (Ewan McGregor), who are stuck in dead-end jobs and longing for the good life.
In the movie's opening scene, we see the siblings buying a boat with Terry's winnings from a 60-to-1 dog-track long shot called — what else? — Cassandra's Dream. But before long, that same reckless gambling has Terry dodging a couple of loan sharks who would gladly take his kneecaps for payment. Ian, meanwhile, schemes to invest in California hotels — a "surefire" deal, he says, that will buy him and his actress girlfriend their tickets out of gloomy London.
Enter the brothers' storied uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson), a supposedly brilliant and wealthy plastic surgeon, who blows in from Beverly Hills. The good doc says he'd be more than happy to help his nephews out of their respective binds, provided they do one small favor for him in return: "get rid of" a former colleague who is about to give incriminating testimony against Howard in some sketchily defined "investigation."
And so we arrive back at a couple of favored Allen themes: the vagaries of chance and the ethics of murder. It's roughly the same thorny predicament in which the main characters of Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) found themselves, although here you feel the 72-year-old filmmaker working through it with greater inevitability. He never bothers to reveal the extent of Howard's supposed wrongdoings, as if his profession alone were enough to account for his lack of scruples. And Allen has loaded the screenplay with bits of dialogue that rather thuddingly encapsulate the movie's cosmic view: "The whole of human life is about violence; it's a cruel world, Terry," says Ian, in an effort to egg on his skittish sibling.
In those and other respects, Cassandra's Dream feels like one of Allen's laziest pieces of writing and direction, with characters who rarely make it past predictable, marionettes in a miserablist puppet theater. It isn't an aggressively bad movie like the tone-deaf Scoop and Hollywood Ending (2002); it's merely a monotonous one, which lacks the mordant humor, intrigue, and rippling sexuality that made Match Point his strongest work in a decade.