“I do think the writing is pessimistic — all that stuff about life being a tragic experience,” says one character early on in Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream. She's an actress (played by newcomer Hayley Atwell) talking about the play she's appearing in at a small London theater, though she could just as soon 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 Philip Glass' typically metronomic score, Cassandra's Dream announces even before the opening credits are over that everyone in the movie is uniformly doomed.

Keith Hamshere

Dead-end kids: Brothers Ian (Ewan McGregor and Terry (Colin Farrell)
(Click to enlarge)

This is the third film Allen has made in London, following 2005's Match Point and 2006's Scoop, and it adheres fairly closely to the template of the former, in which an ambitious young tennis pro refuses to let a little thing like murder slow down his rapid ascent of the British social ladder. 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), each of them stuck in a dead-end job (Terry fixing cars, Ian helping out in the family restaurant) and longing for the accoutrements of the good life. In the movie's opening scene, we see them buying a boat with Terry's winnings from a 60-to-1 dog-track long shot (called — what else? — Cassandra's Dream), though before long that same reckless gambling has gotten Terry up to his eyeballs in debt and dodging a couple of loan sharks who would gladly take his kneecaps for payment. Ian, meanwhile, schemes to invest in some hotels in California — a “sure-fire” deal, he says, that will also buy him and his actress girlfriend their tickets out of gloomy London.

Enter the brothers' storied Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson), a supposedly brilliant and fabulously wealthy surgeon of the plastic variety, who blows in from Beverly Hills (by way of China) and says he'd be more than happy to help his nephews out of their respective binds, provided they do one small favor in return: “get rid of” a former colleague about to give 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 found themselves, although here you feel the 72-year-old filmmaker working through it with greater inevitability. He never even bothers to reveal the full extent of Howard's supposed wrongdoing, as if his profession alone were enough to account for his lack of scruples. And Allen has loaded up 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. “Nobody wants to be selfish, but everybody is,” echoes the boys' proud, working-class dad.

In those and other respects, Cassandra's Dream (which was scheduled to open for an Oscar-qualifying run last month before being unceremoniously bumped to January) feels like one of Allen's laziest pieces of writing and direction, leaden with heavy metaphor and characters who rarely make it beyond archetype — marionettes in a miserablist puppet theater. It's not an aggressively bad film like the tone-deaf Scoop, merely a monotonous one that lacks the mordant humor, Highsmith-ian intrigue and rippling sexuality that made Match Point his strongest film in a decade. Here the pleasures are strictly incidental, including Farrell, who plays his one-dimensional character with an affecting mixture of boyish naiveté and tragic inevitability; and the tall, lithe Atwell, who is filmed by Allen as rhapsodically as if she were Scarlett Johansson, and whose husky voice ripples with desire. Pity that both of them are stuck in roles at least one rewrite away from being worthy of their abilities. The movie ends on an image of its titular vessel bobbing about in choppy seas, by which point it's Allen himself who seems to have been cast adrift.

CASSANDRA'S DREAM | Written and directed by WOODY ALLEN | Produced by LETTY ARONSON, STEPHEN TENENBAUM and GARETH WILEY | Released by the Weinstein Company | ArcLight Hollywood, ArcLight Sherman Oaks, Criterion, Landmark, Manhattan Village Mall, Playhouse 7

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