3 stars (out of four)
To say that "Match Point" is Woody Allen's best film in years is not to say that "Match Point" is a great film.
By sloughing off some old habits--ditching his beloved and maligned New York City for London and refraining from writing a leading-man part in his own image--Allen has reinvigorated his favorite argument. Nothing means anything and everything means nothing, and Allen's back to say it with style.
Sure, he's still trafficking in the same old bugaboos--adultery, guilt, luck and the absolute lack of any sort of moral order in the universe. And he can't seem to completely shake what plagued his last film, "Melinda and Melinda": a disinterest in pop culture, a subsequent tin ear to the way people talk and a fascination with the upper crust.
However, "Match Point" is fantastic to look at, sharply dramatic and Allen is--who knew?--a master of suspense. This time around, the writer-director has channeled his burning desire to be one of them through Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a tennis pro-turned-instructor, whose job at a hoity-toity London country club has him hobnobbing with the wealthy and bored. There he meets Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), a mighty fine chap who is tickled pink to learn that this poor boy from Ireland is not only an athlete but a thinker and, wouldn't you know it, an opera fan.
Soon Chris is joining the Hewett family in their private box at the Royal Opera House and, a few arias later, dating Tom's mousy sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) and lusting after Tom's sultry American fiance, a pouty-lipped struggling actress named Nola (Scarlett Johansson). More arias, and Chris and Chloe get married and try for a baby, quickly falling into a passionless routine that revolves around ovulation schedules and fertility doctors. Chris rises in the Hewett's undefined family business and gets quite comfy with his driver, expense account and afternoon rendezvous with Nola.
His becomes a fairly traditional predicament: hot sex with a buxom blond versus money and a very nice wife. (Or, as it is often in the lovingly misogynistic world of the Woodster: the seductress versus the nag.) But, as things get complicated, much as they did in the very similarly plotted but far superior "Crimes and Misdemeanors," the choice blurs and the dilemma shifts until Chris can only allow one of these women to survive. This is not a turn of phrase. We're talking life and death here.
Part of the reason I'm not completely blown away by this film is Rhys Meyers, whose smoldering good looks and oddly effeminate appeal make him more suited for the Calvin Klein runway than a morality play. Allen may have created the anti-Allen in Chris, but Rhys Meyers is neither more human nor less affected than the director's many mimics. (Goode, on the other hand, is a star.)
Nola and Chris' affair is at first built on lust (they meet over a provocative game of ping pong--really) and then a certain outsider bond; Nola is Yankee trash to Tom's mother, and Chris is the ultimate climber, though he disguises his unseemly hunger by discussing Dostoyevsky and quoting Sophocles with the best of 'em.
As is his way, Allen is enamored with Johannson, and at first his lecherous close-ups feel icky. But as Nola becomes a fuller character--like all his broads, she has a serious confidence problem--Allen's intense mix of attraction and revulsion matches our own. (The exception to this rule is in the ripped-from-the-romance-novel sex scenes, the first of which involves a braless Johansson running in the rain before making love in a wet field.)
Allen really revs up in the second half of "Match Point"--once he gets all that talk of high art and Aston Martins out of the way--and it's a pleasure to let the Allenisms wash over you, ever so slightly disguised in the form of a taut dramatic thriller but never diluted.
There is, however, the small matter of predictability. As Chris states a bit too bluntly for my taste toward the end of the film, getting caught for his crime would keep alive some "small hope for the possibility of meaning" in this world, and even the most casual Woody Allen fan knows what that means: You can take the boy out of godless Manhattan, but you can't take the godless Manhattan out of the boy.
Written and directed by Woody Allen; photographed by Remi Adefarasin; edited by Alisa Lepselter; production designed by Jim Clay; produced by Letty Aronson, Gareth Wiley and Lucy Darwin. A DreamWorks release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:04. MPAA rating: R for some sexuality.
Chris Wilton - Jonathan Rhys Meyers
Nola Rice - Scarlett Johansson
Chloe Wilton - Emily Mortimer
Tom Hewett - Matthew Goode
Alec Hewett - Brian Cox
Eleanor Hewett - Penelope Wilton