There are spoilers within.
2007's CASSANDRA'S DREAM is a return for Woody Allen to the sort of story in which the murky waters of justice - or lack of - takes precedence over his usual coverage of a round robin of relationships. Of whether the bad (or at least those who commit murder) will receive their just desserts. Surely there is some Morality at work (God, maybe) that will reward the just and damn the criminal!? This newer movie will doubtless remind you of Allen's CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS from nearly 20 years earlier. Thematically, at least.
Terry (Colin Ferrell) and Ian (Ewan McGregor) are ne'er do well brothers living in the South of London. The former is an auto mechanic addicted to gambling; the latter very unhappily assists his father in their restaurant. Ian fancies himself a business venturist but has only a small savings account and borrows the fancy cars left at his brother's garage to use to impress women. After Terry finally scores at the dog track, the brothers decide to purchase a sailboat which they christen as "Cassandra's Dream", named after the winning canine. Those who remember Greek mythology will raise an eyebrow at this choice and just know bad things are in store for these lads.
For awhile, things look up for them: Terry continues his winning streak at poker tables. Ian meets a very beautiful actress named Angela (Hayley Atwell) with whom he is instantly smitten. Ian, by the way, unceremoniously dumps his current squeeze, Lucy, a waitress at the restaurant. The movie never allows a scene of confrontation between Lucy and Ian; Allen abruptly cuts from a moment where she enters a kitchen as Ian describes how much in love with Angela he is. In fact, many scenes in DREAM end prematurely and seem rushed. I agree with Manola Dargis' assessment that it seems like Allen "directed this movie with a stopwatch".
The tables turn as Terry loses his winnings and much more, soon in the hole for 90 quid. Ian's milking of his nonexistent lifestyle runs thin. Good thing Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson, great as always), a successful plastic surgeon to whom the boys' mother always unfavorably compares her husband, arrives for a visit. It seems Uncle has helped out the family many times before. Howard is willing to bail out the lads but this time for something in exchange - a colleague about to deliver a damning testimony needs to be "taken care of." When the boys balk, Howard goes on a melodramatic tear about family, how blood relatives do whatever necessary to protect each other. The brothers reluctantly agree.
They succeed, but not without one botched attempt and much guilt, mainly from Terry, who will be tormented beyond tolerance (including the audiences') until the very end of CASSANDRA'S DREAM. I do have to say that Ferrell gets to flex his acting muscles a bit here.
And CASSANDRA'S DREAM, at the very least, is a break from Woody's once-a-year comedies of neuroses. He's as dependable as Clint Eastwood, cranking them out for content's sake, it seems. Most Woodys are fairly lighthearted romantic talkfests, but every so often he mines more dramatic territory, usually in the form of an ethics essay, with dashes of Greek tragedy. It had been only 2 years since MATCH POINT, another Allen drama that examined justice, and a far superior movie.
CASSANDRA is by comparison a very tired, humorless, drably presented check-your-watch exercise. Instead of considering other, fresher dramatic possibilities: having a character display something besides predictable emotions and behavior, a late hour twist, a differing point of view, Allen gives us a dour, unpleasant slog to an inevitable (though abrupt) conclusion. Unlike with his past dramas, we're left less with moral weight we're anxious to discuss with fellow filmgoers than exhaustion.