When the lights dim and the first moments shine upon the screen, you know that you're watching a Woody Allen film. That classic font smiles, and we quickly get the cast of characters. There's no long, music-laden intro -- just a quick rundown of the top names and then into the story. That's where the similarities to classic Allen die, though, but maybe it's time to stop comparing Allen to the works of his past. Over his last few films, the filmmaker has broken out of the mold. This time around, however, the mold might have helped keep things together. Cassandra's Dream is an interesting but superficial film that isn't sure if it wants to be a light drama or a dark comedy.
Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor star as brothers Terry and Ian. Terry is a mechanic with a penchant for gambling, while Ian is a wannabe businessman who bides his time in the family restaurant while he waits for his big financial break. Terry has been having quite the winning streak -- he keeps betting himself into a corner, and then comes out with a big win every time. After betting on a race dog with 60-1 odds at the races, he comes into a bit of money, and he and his brother buy a boat that they name 'Cassandra's Dream', after the winning dog. Ian, meanwhile, runs into a beautiful actress named Angela (Hayley Atwell), who is having car troubles on the side of the road, and he falls hard.
But this is the end of their good fortune. Terry foolishly presses his luck and finds himself ₤90,000 in debt. The brothers don't know what to do until they hear that their rich surgeon Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson) is coming to town, and he always helps out the family with money. Perfect timing! With greed-clouded vision, the men are itching to talk to their well-off relative. Terry can finally get out of debt, and Ian can get the money he needs for his "sure-thing" hotel deal. Surprisingly, their uncle is ready to help. However, there's a catch. The camera circles around the three men as Uncle Howard explains that in return, they have to silence a business partner who is about to rake the doctor over the coals. Yes, he wants his nephews to kill someone for the money. He can see no other alternative. You'd imagine that they couldn't do something so finite for easy cash, but the brothers aren't functioning rationally.
On the one hand, this is a dramatic story about the destruction of a family and how desperation can drive one to extremes. But really, it's not. Beyond the far-fetched plot lie caricatures who deliver awkward dialog and superficial emotion. You can always tell when Terry is going to get upset and waver about the plan -- his lip quivers, he pouts, and the audience laughs. It's as if Allen directed Farrell to muster up the most insincere worry that the actor could manage. As for McGregor, he gets the honor of delivering some real eye-rolling statements. Only Tom Wilkinson is able to execute the out-of-this-world lines with some sort of charm. His rationale is just as crazy as the brothers, but there's just something about him that makes it entertaining.
But the entertainment is fleeting and awkward. It is unfortunate, because there is definite potential in the film. While the brothers are quite unlikable with their wavering morals and crappy lack of common sense, they do have some intriguing layers. Terry is the superficial "bad" guy with his drinking and gambling, but he's got a much tougher conscience than his outwardly do-gooder brother who is more opportunistic than loyal. Just when you think Ian couldn't get worse -- he does.
This is, perhaps, the biggest problem with the film. It's really hard to find anything likable in the characters, and if you can't like them, it's not as fun to watch them on the screen for almost two hours. To be fair, Cassandra's Dream will probably keep you interested, but you might not like it -- you might be watching because the brothers are a train wreck, not because they are a couple of guys you care about, or are rooting for. It's another noble attempt by Allen to escape from the clutches of talky, New York City flicks, but it's sadly missing the charm.