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Cassandra's Dream: Brother's keeper 

Woody Allen's comeback hits the skids

Well, that Woody Allen comeback didn't last long. In 2005 Allen invigorated his prolific filmmaking career by shedding his usual Manhattan locales and stylistic mannerisms for London and the icy psychological drama Match Point. With 2006's comedy Scoop and now Cassandra's Dream, Allen crafted a kind of trilogy about outsiders obsessed with the English upper class. Scarlett Johansson's comedic spark gave Scoop's labored plotting a little energy, but Cassandra's Dream merely offers a morose, hand-wringing reprise of Match Point's crimes and misdemeanors.

Allen's latest work follows two brothers: Terry (Colin Farrell), a mechanic with a gambling problem, and his older sibling, Ian (Ewan McGregor), who works in the family restaurant but aspires to be a wheeler-dealer. Terry's winning streak runs out at the same time Ian begins posing as wealthy to woo sexy actress Angela (Hayley Atwell). Both desperate for money, they look to philanthropic Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson) for a bailout, but he offers them a dangerous counterproposal instead.

It's hard to overstate how much Allen condescends to his audience, or how little he understands the worlds of his characters. Allen wears his artistic aspirations on his sleeve, so the dialogue drops anvil-sized hints about the story's "deep" themes. "So you're a fan of the Greek tragedies, too?" asks one character, while Angela remarks of her stage role, "The whole point of my character is to create an erotic tension." Maybe some actors could make such lines sound like human speech, but nobody does in Cassandra's Dream.

Meanwhile, when people talk about Ian's ventures into "the world of business," the enterprise sounds as alien and unnatural as any of McGregor's distant planets in the last trio of Star Wars movies. Allen's direction puts a damper on McGregor's and Farrell's considerable charisma. Farrell frequently proves more credible in character roles than as above-the-title leading men, but their performances here stay in a narrow range. Ian plays the strong brother, Terry the weak one, and the dynamic scarcely changes. Cassandra's Dream especially suffers from following so quickly on the heels of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, a superb crime drama about cutthroat brothers.

If Cassandra's Dream is the best he can do, Allen might as well come home.

Cassandra's Dream 2 stars. Directed by Woody Allen. Stars Ewan McGregor, Colin Farrell. Rated PG-13. Opens Fri., Jan. 18. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

For more on film, visit our A&E blog PopSmart at www.clpopsmart.com.

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