Woody Allen challenges himself anew in British-made “Match Point”
At this point, consensus holds that Woody Allen hasn’t made a major film since “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” 16 years ago, although some would make a case for the 1992 “Husbands and Wives.” I’m too young to judge whether “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” were accurate portraits of ’70s New York intellectuals, but the films Allen has made since “Crimes and Misdemeanors” suggest that he pays as little attention to the real world as possible.
His few successes-“Sweet and Lowdown,” “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion”-have been exceedingly slight. When he tried self-criticism in “Deconstructing Harry,” his alter ego was a jerk who still behaved better than anyone around him; Albert Brooks and Larry David have lacerated themselves far more honestly and amusingly.
With partial funding from the BBC and a cast featuring only one American, Allen shot “Match Point” in London. He may have benefited from this locale’s unfamiliarity. Allen’s representations of New York life have grown increasingly ludicrous. The disastrous “Melinda and Melinda,” released earlier this year, populated Manhattan with characters in their 30s whose great interest in the arts never extended to authors or composers still alive. Such people exist, certainly, but in my experience, their tastes are self-consciously retro and alienated from pop culture.
Allen and Quentin Tarantino might seem like complete opposites, but both make films about the world inside their heads, almost entirely derived from cultural reference points. In Tarantino’s “Kill Bill,” that means Japanese B-movies and Italian Westerns; in “Match Point,” it’s Verdi and Dostoyevsky. At their best, the subject of class has been the only thread connecting them to reality. Chris Wilson (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), the protagonist of “Match Point,” says several times that life’s about luck, but a more impartial observer might say that his is mostly about privilege.
Born in Ireland and coming from a poor background, Chris made his entrance onto the tennis circuit. Knowing his limitations, he’s hired by Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode) as a teacher at a tennis club. The two men become instant friends, bonding over their fondness for opera, and Chris also falls for Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer.) Soon, Chris and Chloe are engaged to be married, and Tom’s wealthy father Alec (Brian Cox) offers him a job. Despite rising so quickly in the eyes of this powerful family, Chris has a fatal weakness-he’s fallen for Nola (Scarlett Johansson), an American actress dating Tom. Even as Chris and Chloe plan a wedding, he continues an affair with Nola.
Despite the Dostoyevsky references, “Match Point” suggests that Allen would have enjoyed adapting Bret Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho” and Patricia Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” It combines the influences of Alfred Hitchock and Ingmar Bergman. Character is its strength-both Nola and Chris are memorable creations. However, the screenplay is both the film’s high point and greatest weakness. As one might expect from Allen in his serious mode, the cinematography is somber. The film noir elements don’t entirely suit the characters or story. The final moments of “Match Point” are too self-consciously clever-particularly a subplot involving an insightful cop-and cheaply cynical.
At worst, “Match Point” succumbs to an unthinking Anglophilia-Alec is the film’s sole wholly benevolent character. Chris’ mysterious job, while apparently demanding and extremely well-paying, leaves him plenty of time for afternoon flings and vacations. His rise in the business world is too fast and easy to be completely believable. However, it’s pretty common for films to be vague about the workplace. “Match Point” isn’t concerned so much with the details of Chris’ sinecure as its effect on him. While he may have come from a lower-class, outsider background, he becomes determined to hang onto his newfound wealth at all cost. “Luck” has helped him get by in the world so much that he can’t find any real solutions to complex, adult problems. Privilege has taught him to go for the easy way out, thus he turns violent.
Allen seems to understand Chris better than Nola and Chloe-even if his behavior is far worse than theirs-but for once, he seems completely sympathetic to the women his men victimize. As played by Johansson, Nola is a combustible bundle of rage, too much of a nervous wreck-and prone to heavy drinking-to be cut out for the constant rejection actresses face. She’s the only typical Allen neurotic in “Match Point.” She’s not always likable-indeed, she’s often annoying-but she’s no femme fatale. On the other side, Tom’s mother is portrayed as a one-dimensional creep whose sole mission in life is humiliating Nola. It’s a note that consistently rings false, although it proves that Allen doesn’t idealize the entire British upper class.
“Melinda and Melinda” suggested that Allen was essentially making films about his youth and setting them in present-day New York with a few details changed. While “Match Point” recalls “Crimes and Misdemeanors” in many respects without equaling it, it’s the work of a man who has decided to challenge himself at long last.