Ian (McGregor) and Terry (Colin Farrell) are two brothers, each with tremendous financial problems. Early in the film, they manage to scrape together some money and buy a small sailboat. After the refurbish it, they christen it “Cassandra’s Dream” and set sail. Later, there financial troubles have only deepened; Terry is a gambler and is now 90,000 pounds in the hole, Ian wants to escape working at their parent’s restaurant and invest in a business deal to start some hotels in California. When he meets Angela, an aspiring actress, his goals become all the more enticing. Their parents have a history of relying on Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson), a successful plastic surgeon and philanthropist, to help them make ends meet. When Uncle Howard comes for a visit, they ask him to help out. Uncle Howard agrees, but it turns out he isn’t as saintly as his parents believe and needs some help; a former business associate is threatening to tell some secrets about Howard’s business dealings, threatening his business and livelihood. He needs his nephews to kill the informer. I mean, they are asking for a lot of money, again, it seems like a fair exchange.
Eschewing the relationship- based comedies and the slapstick derived shenanigans he is best-known for, Allen revisits the sort of shady moral ambiguity he visited so memorably with “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and the more recent “Match Point”. The only problem? “Cassandra’s Dream” is nowhere near as good or memorable as these other two entries. This leads me to the other oft-noted comment about Woody Allen’s films. In the last decade or so, for every good film, there can be two or more films that are mediocre or just plain excruciating painful to sit through. “Matchpoint” was a near great film, showcasing a writer director with great material and a cast to match. That film was followed by “Scoop”, a dreadful excuse for a ‘funny’ film, starring Scarlet Johansson and Hugh Jackman. “Dream” isn’t as bad as “Scoop”, but it is a long way from “Matchpoint”.
One of the key problems with “Dream” is that everyone talks, a lot. Ian talks about his potential business deal and needing money for that. Then he meets
Angela and they talk about moving to California together. Ian talks with Terry about Terry’s gambling. Terry talks with Ian about his gambling debts. We get it. They have money problems. Ian talks about his unhappiness with his life, he doesn’t like working at his family restaurant and wants to escape to California. He talks about this with Terry, he talks about this with his dad, he talks about this with his mom, and he talks about this with Angela. Then, his father brings up Ian’s grand ambitions, which have been problematic in the past. Many times. Then, after Uncle Howard makes his request, Ian and Terry have many conversations about murdering his business associate. Ian seems to have little problem with the idea, Terry has a lot of problems with it. But they both need money. And then discuss why they need the money again.
Interrupting these numerous and varied discussions, the two brothers take their newly refurbished boat out, they murder a man, and later, they take the boat out again.
Many filmmakers have made their careers crafting films using a lot of well-written, bordering on clever dialogue throughout. Allen himself has been known to create dialogue for his characters giving them a comedic spin. But Allen is also guilty of writing dialogue in his voice, varying it little, despite the age, economic status or sex of the character. In many of the director’s best films, the sheer number of characters he has floating throughout the story masks this problem. Most of his best films have at least half dozen well-known actors playing various parts, usually more. This gives all of the characters the opportunity to absorb these awkward lines, while waiting for the chance to utter the funny and memorable dialogue he is best known for. But when he makes smaller films, with fewer characters, the problem becomes amplified. In “Dream”, the majority of the dialogue is between Ian and Terry, or between one of the brothers and their significant others. So when they say things like “Oh, my God, I feel so self-conscious right now”, you almost want to laugh because we half expect this to be an amusing line spoken by one of Allen’s signature characters, the type he often plays and models after our image of him. The filmmaker’s years of analysis and self-reflection have always played a part in his work. But in “Dream”, he has no doppelganger, no character for us to identify with him. So when a young twenty-something actress says a line similar to this, it feels phony and contrived.
Also, the two brothers address each other by name, a lot, when talking to one another. I don’t know about you. But when I am having a conversation with one other person, I rarely use their name, and only when I am trying to emphasize what I am saying. Terry and Ian say each other’s names a lot, almost as though Allen is trying to keep track of who is speaking his dialogue.
“Matchpoint” is a very similar film, yet a more successful one. In that film, the two main characters faced a moral dilemma together and their actions led the story. In “Dream”, the two brothers face an unpleasant task together, yet one of them is clearly very bothered about his part of the task, while the other seems more put out by his brother’s reluctance to complete the required actions. So, they talk about it, and one brother tries to convince the other. And they talk some more. And then talk some more.
The two leads do their best with the dialogue. While McGregor seems the most comfortable with the awkward lines and excessive dialogue, Farrell is more successful at creating his character. Terry is the black sheep of the family and a gambler. Riding the roller coaster accompanying this type of addiction, he is overjoyed one day and morose the next. When their Uncle asks them to murder a potentially harmful business associate, you might expect him to have the easier time accepting the chore ahead of them. But he struggles with the moral problems associated with this task, tossing and turning as he sleeps. Farrell is able to make Terry seem weaker and more vulnerable.
McGregor’s Ian falls for Angela, a glamorous actress, early in the film. Before this, Ian was desperate to raise some money to invest in a new business deal in California, to escape the dungeon that is their parent’s restaurant. After he meets Angela, he seems more determined to make this happen, to make her more interested in him. What actress wouldn’t want to move to California, to be closer to Hollywood and stardom? But despite some off-hand references by his father, we never get a feeling for how and why Ian is able to so easily go ahead with his Uncle’s request. I understand he will get money and be able to make the business deal a reality, but just listening to people talk about these things doesn’t help to make them visually interesting.
Tom Wilkinson plays Uncle Harold and while he is interesting to watch, this happens more because you keep waiting for some subtle hint of his true diabolical nature. When he reveals what he wants his nephews to do, that is diabolical, for sure, and he is desperate, desperate for this potential source of harm to go away. But the actor never gives us a brief glimpse of something else, something lying beneath the surface.
In fact, that is pretty much the problem with the entire film; there is nothing below the surface and because of all of the talk, nothing is really visually interesting.