So habituated had I become to steeling myself against yet another disappointment from the once-brilliant Woody Allen, who as we all know has tilted deeply into scattershot demi-irrelevance in the past 15 years or so, that when his latest film opened with a distinctly peevish narrator (Zak Orth) informing us, "Shakespeare said life was all sound and fury, and in the end, signified nothing", I was already prepared to write it off, for two reasons: Shakespeare wrote that, but as he gave it to the dark anti-hero Macbeth in one of that character's most despairing moments, it's hardly likely that Shakespeare believed that; and oh Jesus Christ, here comes another sour Woody Allen film about the futility of everything.

And, in fact, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger fails on both of those counts: yes, it misconstrues Shakespeare while making a big deal of dropping that and other artsy references all over the place (Character A: "I'm so impressed you recognise the music of Boccherini!" Character B: "Yes, he's very moving and allows me to establish to the audience that I'm smarter than they are."); and yes, it is a sour Woody Allen film about the futility of everything, just like, off the top of my head, Husbands and Wives, Celebrity, Cassandra's Dream, Crimes and Misdemeanors, September, Deconstructing Harry, and last (and probably least), 2009's joy-starved "comedy" Whatever Works. Neither of these facts end up mattering: YWMaTDS ends up being pretty damn good - even better when it has a little bit of time to percolate and simmer, as it turns out. Frankly, I preferred it to the distinctly "better" Vicky Cristina Barcelona, everybody's most recent "thank God, Woody Allen is back!" picture, if only because for all its clumsy turns and misdirected actors, it's probably the most urgent Allen film in at least a decade, though given that the decade in question includes e.g. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Hollywood Ending, it mostly doesn't count.

Like Husbands and Wives, the new film focuses on two marriages that are collapsing, though one has effectively ended before the story even begins. After nearly 40 years of marriage, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) has left his wife Helena (Gemma Jones), out of his refusal stay with a woman content to grow old and feeble while he boastfully lives by the principle that you're only as old as you feel. This leaves Helena with plenty of free time to mope around and bother her daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) and her husband Roy (Josh Brolin), an American expatriate who studied medicine, decided he'd rather be a writer, and has spent the last several years thrashing out a second novel to make good on the promise of his first book. Sally and Roy are pretty much at the end of their tether as well, and both have caught a bad case of wandering eye: Sally for her new boss, an art gallery owner named Greg (Antonio Banderas); Roy for the pretty musician Dia (Frieda Pinto) who just moved in the apartment across the courtyard. Alfie, meanwhile, has gotten on with his life by proposing marriage to the busty, lewd ex-prostitute Charmaine (Lucy Punch). In an effort to do the same, Helena has become addicted to an obviously self-serving fortune teller named Cristal (Pauline Collins), who unashamedly tells her client precisely the nice, and patently made-up "truths" that will make her feel better.

The plot wins no points for imagination: everything plays out more or less how you'd predict, although I, for one, was not prepared for just how cynical Allen decided to be this time around. As is not unusual for the filmmaker, he plays the role of an indifferent creator god, making people with particular foibles that guarantee them to failure, but at least here (unlike Whatever Works or Celebrity to name two of the most egregious examples), one never quite gets the sense that he actively hates his own characters. He finds them pathetic, certainly - especially Alfie, who is subjected to the most humiliations of any character in the film (it's weirdly reflexive to see the old man lusting after a much-too-young woman getting handled so roughly in an Allen film, I might add, and here it even happens twice: Roy, though never made out to be as much of a self-deluding ass as Alfie, is certainly not looked upon kindly due to his infatuation with Dia). But even in their pathos, there's something plaintively human about these poor bastards, desperately trying to cling to anything meaningful in a life that has been marked by a host of mistakes. It's probably a mistake to credit this all to Allen's encroaching mortality; but he's a singularly death-obsessed artist, and there's something about the manner in which all of his characters in this film try to ferret out whatever actually does signify something in their existence, that has the tang of a man trying to work through his nervousness about leaving behind a valueless life. Particularly given the way he abruptly ends three of the four protagonists' stories on a nasty clang, just when they've been given a particularly unpleasant shock, with no chance to react to it: death (in this case, the end of the movie) sneaking up on all of us before we're ready.

Accordingly, there's little chance for reflection or the spiraling dialogue typical of Allen's comedies (and YWMaTDS is absolutely, in its structure and performances, a comedy, though a fairly laughless one; to reference that Shakespeare fella that Allen seems to like, it's not a Much Ado About Nothing but an All's Well That Ends Well, except for the "ending well" part). Unlike every other one of his European films, there's no touristy lingering over architecture and scenery, no porny ogling the lifestyles of the wealthy - though the family does have its fair share of money, and the most openly derided character is also the lowest-class, in a bit more sour than I suspect the filmmaker realised. The self-conscious, languid Britishness of Match Point is nowhere at all to be found; this film is hellbent on presenting itself with all due speed.

Perhaps reflecting this, it's one of the most visually lively of all Allen's films: shot by no less a luminary than Vilmos Zsigmond (their third collaboration) in a thick, sickly golden hue that becomes more and more ironic as the film progresses, with some of the most obviously "directed" moments in the director's career since at least the 1990s. The unsparing use of close-ups force an intimacy with the characters that we're not entirely comfortable with, while the darting camera movements (significant camera movement! in a Woody Allen film!) keep the film hurried and probing, trying to dig into the sets and characters and find the meaning that they cannot find themselves.

The cast is mostly game to keep up with Allen: Jones and Punch are the best in show (Punch finding a way to rise above the shrill clichΓ© the script gives her), with Hopkins giving an uncharacteristically restrained and sincere performance, and only Banderas seems absolutely lost at sea in a character who has absolutely no inner life, no matter how many times the dialogue tries to give him on (Brolin isn't terribly great, either, but he has some horribly messy speeches to deal with). Though it is rather odd to see accomplished actors of this caliber - and it's one of the outwardly best ensembles Allen has put together in ages - content to serve mainly as pawns in the filmmaker's game.

I suspect that I have overstated the movie's appeal: it is a bit crabby and hard, and even more so than a lot of late-period Woody Allen, seems inordinately tied up with the filmmaker's own personal baggage. I don't know that it signifies nothing - in places, it's a fairly sharp critique of the human capacity to want so much that we let reality steamroll over us - though what it signifies is duly misanthropic. Mostly, I think I'm just happy to see that, even in a minor way (and it is, make no mistake, a minor film), Allen is still able to find new approaches to the same questions that have vexed him for most of his career.