Gee, you think something bad might happen to the two brothers buying a used sailboat at the beginning of Woody Allen’s new film Cassandra’s Dream (The Weinstein Company)? They decide to name their new plaything after the prophet who foretold the events of Greek tragedy. They purchase it with money that the younger brother, Terry (Colin Farrell), won at the dog track, betting on a long-shot hound of the same ominous name. And they spend their first outing on the boat dreaming of the big things that lie ahead for them, as soon as Terry gets over his gambling addiction and Ian (Ewan MacGregor) manages to land the vaguely defined investment deal that will deliver him from managing his father’s London restaurant.
Just in case you were still feeling sanguine about the Blaine brothers’ prospects, the nerve-jangling arpeggios of Philip Glass’ score are there to drive home the point: These boys, likable though they may be, are comeuppance-bound. Their vanity drives them to commit small acts of hubris. Ian borrows vintage Jaguars from the garage where Terry works as a mechanic and passes them off as his own to impress girls. This works a little too well on Angela (Hayley Atwell), a sexy aspiring actress who telegraphs her inappropriateness as girlfriend material with the forthrightness of the animated evil queen in Annie Hall: “What do you want from me? I’m moody, I’m self-absorbed, and I’m ambitious!”
While Ian scrambles for investment capital to save face with Angela, Terry wins 30,000 pounds in a card game—enough for a down payment on the house he’s buying with his girlfriend, Kate (Sally Hawkins)—then gambles again the next night, putting himself 90,000 pounds in the hole. Just then, the boys’ rich uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson) sweeps in from China and offers them both a way out, if they’ll just help him with a little problem of his own. It seems Howard has come by his vast wealth by (unspecified) unsavory means, and, if a whistle-blower named Martin Burns (Phil Davis) isn’t promptly done away with, he’ll testify against Howard and put him in jail for life.
At first, both brothers recoil at the idea of killing a stranger for money. But Ian, who’s the more competent and morally calculating of the two, slowly persuades the fragile Terry that Uncle Howard’s plan represents the only way out for both of them. There’s a suspenseful and darkly comic stretch midway through the film, as the brothers fumble with homemade wooden guns and debate the ethics of murder (should they let the doomed man have one last visit with his 90-year-old mother?) even as they park the getaway car. But there’s no escaping the humorless fate that destiny, in the form of Allen’s heavy-handed screenplay, has set for them.
Cassandra’s Dream is not unredeemably bad. MacGregor and Farrell hack away at their implausible dialogue with admirable intensity (though when Terry starts to descend into mental illness, Farrell touches his limits as an actor). The great Tom Wilkinson is always a welcome face, though his tiny role (less than 10 total minutes on-screen) seems to have been tossed off during lunch hour. And there’s something primally compelling about the brothers’ dilemma, even if their uncle’s request is patently absurd: Why assign a contract killing to two bumbling amateurs who, as relatives of the man with the most to gain from the murder, would be among the first suspects questioned? I guess the story of two brothers who join forces to research the name of a good professional hitman somehow lacks mythic scope.
Like Allen’s last two films, Match Point and Scoop, Cassandra’s Dream is a murder mystery set in London. But Allen seemed far more comfortable in the posh townhouses of Match Point than he is in the dingy wallpapered cottages of Cassandra’s Dream. (As for Scoop, it’s best to pretend it didn’t happen, like a belch in polite company.) These characters not only don’t talk like working-class Londoners, they don’t talk like anyone, except maybe a sententious drunk spinning theories about “life”: “It’s funny how life boils down to this.” “Life is nothing if not totally ironic.” “The whole of human life is about violence.” “Funny how life has a life of its own.” In what could have been the movie’s cleverest moment, the Blaines accidentally run into Martin Burns, the object of their intended hit job, at a party. Chatting them up at the bar, he raises a glass: “To life.” If Allen had told this story with a lighter touch, that would have been all the tragic irony he needed.