Colin Farrell tends towards characters who are bruised around the edges. Here in Woody Allen’s humble thriller, his Terry is bruised around the brain. A gambling-addicted garage mechanic, he’s got the dopey sweetness of a baby dropped from his bassinet; his eyes have never been more puppyish, his plans more wishfully naïve. At either the racetrack or the poker table, Terry knows he’ll strike it rich. We know he won’t. And his smarter and initially more sympathetic brother Ian (Ewan McGregor)—a restaurant manager with dreams of Dodi Fayed grandeur—isn’t convinced either way, but he’s ready to claim his share if and when Terry starts raking in the chips. Terry and Ian want the fancy cars and the Big Man swagger—they just don’t want to have to do an honest days work for them when they can simply buy a boat, the Cassandra’s Dream, that’s out of their means and pray for their horse to run real fast.
This moderately-ticking tale of two needy bunglers finally clicks into gear with a visit from their disgustingly rich Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson) who offers to grant even their most wildly delusional aspirations if they murder a whistle blower who’s threatening to bring down his Asian cosmetic surgery empire. Ian’s most open to the idea. He’s desperate to run with the glamorous set. His calculating and expensive new girlfriend Angela (Hayley Atwell), a posh actress in icy white linens, loves him for his borrowed cars and fictitious hotels—and Ian’s so hooked on her, he’ll do anything to transform himself into the moneybags she thinks she’s dating before she catches wise that he’s just another ambitious pauper. But Terry realizes too late that he could happily settle for a modest house and a fridge of beer to share with his sweet fiancée Kate (a grounded and compassionate Sally Hawkins) skipping around in her tarty downmarket minis.
Allen’s already said plenty on the snot-inducing corruptibility of money. He’s got nothing new to say here; what’s different is how he says it. It’s like he’s mellowed from being the brashest wit at the Algonquin Table to being a Marlboro Man content to grunt his opinions. Every note of Cassandra’s Dream is familiar from the thousand films exactly like it you’ve already seen. But somehow, it’s not boring. McGregor’s too-shiny face and his nervous corners of his mouth when he tries out his confident smile speak to a world of bluffers who feel let down by life when in truth, they’re to blame. As the smarter and smoother brother, he’s been dealt a better hand than poor old bumbling Terry, but he allows himself to keep begging for a handout. Allen divides them too neatly into brains versus heart and they look as related as Larry Bird and Manute Bol, yet McGregor and Farrell have the ease of old drinking buddies and the responsibility each feels for the other’s happiness deepens this slight thriller into a film that feels almost grandly philosophical, even though you know that when the lights come on, the spell will break.