by Luke Pyzik
Many critics are writing about “Match Point” as a departure for Woody Allen, but even if you took away his classic white font over black screen title sequence, there is not a person familiar with his past work that would not know who is behind the camera. Sure, this is London and not New York, and yeah, there is no character with a neurotic, stuttering affectation, but Woody’s themes are all over the place – infidelity, upper class customs, and a long glaring stare into the big, black nothing. But this time out, there is new energy and heat in the performances from his young actors, which makes the movie work better than any Allen has made since “Sweet and Lowdown.” With “Match Point,” Allen has made his “Godless/senseless/meaningless” point better than he ever has - so that in a career full of cynical movies, this may be his bleakest.Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who some will recognize as Elvis from the TV movie, stars as Chris Wilton, a young, Irish tennis pro at a London country club. Frustrated he could never be as good as Agassi, Chris burned out early on competitive tennis and now finds himself dolling out lessons to rich kids while he can barely scrape together enough rent money for his overpriced London flat. Soon, Chris befriends country club member Tom Hewitt (Matthew Goode), finds himself dating Tom’s sister, and becoming a sort of adopted son of the rich and powerful Hewitt family. Chris also strikes up a flirtatious relationship with another Hewitt associate, a young actress from Colorado named Nola (Scarlett Johansson). The film seems to cover a period of about two years, in which there are twists and turns among the relationships I dare not reveal. The movie does an expert job at portraying the way in which Chris is willingly sucked into the Hewitt clan, and we are drawn into the suspense of a love triangle (or is it a square? Wait, no. Pentagon.), all the while sure we are headed toward certain tragedy.
"Point taken. Match, Allen."
Even though the audience will recognize the familiar Allen territory, Rhys-Myers and Johansson give the movie an urgency and life that makes it all seem so fresh. The first scene between the two takes place over a ping-pong table and just drips with sexuality, lust, and danger. The weight of this scene is striking, and I had to smile to myself that Allen had once again directed a scene that jumps off the screen and makes you pay attention. Similarly, the role of spurned lover is given such humanity by Emily Mortimer, I was reminded of Michael Caine’s classic turn in Woody’s “Hannah and Her Sisters.” Often in Allen’s films, characters are broadly drawn and arranged like chess pieces so the auteur can make his “point.” “Match Point” is no different, but unlike many of his films over the past ten years, the roles are a little more nuanced, and the fine actors take full advantage.
In the last half hour of the film, something happens that way too many critics have been willing to reveal. Here, the movie becomes tense and exciting, and is as suspenseful and chilling as any true “thriller” released this year. This last arc contains without a doubt the most disturbing images Allen has ever filmed, and because the actors have been able to break the characters out of their chess piece existence, the level of betrayal and horror of the final act is truly felt in the audience. The biggest risk the movie takes is asking us to believe that one of the lead characters will do what they do. Your enjoyment of the film may hinge on whether or not you buy it, and I can see how some will be skeptical, but I found myself not questioning the reality of the choice. These kinds of things seem to happen every day.The movie is not perfect, and even as Allen creates one dandy of a central metaphor that pays off quite wickedly at film’s end, he also has a tendency to spell things out a little too much. We don’t need to see our central character reading Dostoyevsky, and we don’t need a dream sequence in which the film’s themes are quite clumsily spilled out. The aforementioned central metaphor is a ball that strikes the top of the net while playing tennis. It could fall one way and you win, or the other and you lose. Woody argues that all of life is based on luck. There is nothing guiding it and nobody handing out cosmic justice. It wouldn’t surprise me if Woody felt the same way about his filmmaking career. You write the best script you can, you hire the actors you think are right, and year in and year out you make the best movie you can. If you’re lucky, the flick turns out like you hoped, if not, you have “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.” In the case of “Match Point,” the ball has certainly bounced in his favor.
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originally posted: 01/20/06 11:00:51