For movie stars, the prospect of being cast in a Woody Allen film has never lost its mystique, its sheen of cultish privilege. It hardly matters if the part is small. To act for Woody is to upgrade your cred, to join the club of the anointed; since Allen can cast more or less anyone he wants, the fact that he chose you is part of what makes the offer flattering. That said, the luster of appearing in a Woody Allen film the promise of what it will do for an actor's art or career may, by now, be more myth than reality. Scarlett Johansson had her plummiest role to date as the depressive temptress of Match Point, and I loved Sean Penn as the quirky jazz troubadour of Sweet and Lowdown, but does anyone even remember Christina Ricci and Jason Biggs in Anything Else? Tèa Leoni in Hollywood Ending? Or all those unlucky actors who've had to go through the marionette ritual of mimicking Woody's skip-stutter neurotic speech mannerisms, like Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity, Will Ferrell in Melinda and Melinda, or yes Scarlett Johansson in Scoop? When it comes to casting, Woody giveth and Woody taketh away.
Allen's latest, Cassandra's Dream, is one of his debonair ''small'' entertainments, the closest that he has come to doing a tidy, no-frills, down-and-dirty genre thriller. (Match Point was a thriller too, but a far more ambitious one.) The most striking thing about it is the casting: Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell as hungry blokes in South London who happen to be brothers, and who team up to commit a murder. What's novel, for Allen, is that both the lead actors are bona fide sex symbols, and the director, in a rare mood of non-anxiety, doesn't shrink from that he's at home with their laid-back duet of male cool. Maybe it has something to do with their nationalities. Allen must feel that men from England, Ireland, and Scotland have enough natural class to satisfy his pretensions without his having to neuter them into ''intellectuals.''
When we first meet Ian (McGregor) and Terry (Farrell), they're buying a sailboat, which they name Cassandra's Dream a nice collaboration for two brothers who are close enough to be best friends, except that neither one can really afford the purchase. Ian, a wage slave with a cheerful, airy manner, works at their father's restaurant, devoting himself with old-world duty to the family business. Terry, who is simpler, gruffer a prole is a mechanic who lets Ian borrow the sports cars he's in the middle of repairing. The acrid aroma of financial desperation hovers over Cassandra's Dream. Like Match Point, it's a story of how far people will go to thrive in an age when money is status and status is everything.
Driving a Jaguar from Terry's shop, Ian pulls over to assist Angela (Hayley Atwell), whose car has broken down on a country road. Gorgeous and smart, a silky London stage actress, she's like a femme fatale, except there's nothing particularly scheming about her. She's part of a new breed of global consumerist princess who expects her suitors to be rolling in cash and connections. And so Ian, smitten, instinctively remolds his image, pretending to own that Jag, trumping up a shaky Los Angeles investment scheme into the sham image that he's ''in real estate.'' (It's Angela, of course, who's the real commodity.) Terry, meanwhile, is a sweet guy with a gambling fix. It's his debt, incurred during one feverish night of poker, that prods the brothers to ask for financial assistance from their uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson), a wealthy expatriate plastic surgeon who agrees to help them. Under one condition: that they murder the whistle-blower who's about to ruin his career.
So here goes Woody again, doing yet another spin on his Crimes and Misdemeanors plot: a tale of ordinary people driven to kill. Match Point wove avarice, duplicity, and fatal attraction into a caper worthy of Tom Ripley, but in Cassandra's Dream, Uncle Howard's cold-sweat homicidal plan drops in, conveniently, out of nowhere. Wilkinson delivers a fulminating speech about the sacred duty of ''family'' as if it had been plucked from a bad Mob movie, and everything that follows has a detached and almost academic flavor. Cassandra's Dream feels like an exercise: the demonstration of a theme rather than the blood-on-the-carpet embodiment of it. Yet it's never boring, because McGregor and Farrell bring such verve and style and quickened life to their roles. McGregor's Ian grows more sinister as he's seized by his delusion of love, but it's Farrell's Terry, his guilt rotting away his insides, who gives the movie its squirmy bit of soul. This tale of two brothers wrenched apart when they act badly is really a testament to its stars, who in this film act very well, and with visible joy. They make working for Woody Allen into a promise fulfilled. B