by Mel Valentin
Mired in what many critics and viewers consider a permanent late-career slump, Woody Allen, the writer/director of close to 40 films over five decades, including "Annie Hall," "Manhattan," "Hannah and Her Sisters," "Crimes and Misdemeanors," returns to the multiplexes with his latest film, "Match Point," a social drama/erotic thriller/morality play that, contrary to optimistic hopes of a reinvigorated Allen returning to classic form, falls short of the profundity about human behavior, social class, fate, and chance that Allen apparently hoped to achieve. Slickly, even stylishly directed with attractive actors in the lead roles, "Match Point" bears little resemblance to Allen's previous work, with the exception of "Crimes and Misdemeanors," a far more intelligent, insightful exploration of morality (or the lack thereof) and the consequences that follow premeditated violence.Set (mostly) in posh, upper class London (a first for the New York-centric Allen), Match Point centers on an amoral tennis-pro-turned-tennis-instructor Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). Chris, openly ambitious for status and wealth, befriends Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), a shallow, egocentric son and heir to the fortunes of Alec Hewett (Brian Cox), a rich businessman. Easily (perhaps too easily) ingratiating himself into Tom's family, Chris meets Chloe (Emily Mortimer), Tom's sister at the opera, who immediately expresses a romantic interest in Chris. Chris, of course, reciprocates (or perhaps feigns is a better word) Chloe's interest. For his part, Alec becomes interested in converting Chris from an unschooled tennis instructor into a successful businessman, even offering to have his company pay for business school classes.
"Entertaining, if sadly predictable, second-tier Woody Allen."
Chris' near meteoric rise to the wealth and status he covets, however, becomes compromised when he meets Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), Tom's cigarette-smoking American fiancée, during a weekend at the Hewitt estate outside London. Nola, a struggling actress unwilling to give up her ambitions for a more stable career, clashes with Tom's mother, Eleanor (Penelope Wilton). Not surprisingly, Eleanor sees Nola as an opportunist (but oddly enough, accepts Chris with next to no doubts about the authenticity of his feelings toward Chloe). Tom seduces the temperamental Nola into infidelity that's briefly interrupted by several related events, including his own marriage to Chloe. Reuniting with Nola through a chance meeting at an art museum several months later, Tom and Nola renew their passionate relationship. Chris, apparently caught between romantic love and continued access to wealth and power, vacillates between leaving Chloe for Nola or staying with Chloe and breaking off his relationship with Nola.
Match Point then takes a sharp turn that borrows heavily from Crimes and Misdemeanors. Chris' moral, ethical, and legal dilemma mirrors the complex dilemma facing Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), the central character in Crimes and Misdemeanors. To say more about what Chris ultimately decides to do would be to spoil a major plot turn and, with it, the brief third act that covers similar ground in Crimes and Misdemeanors, with the introduction of a new set of problems for Chris, some including matters of conscience and others more practical, mundane matters that hinge on chance, circumstance or even poor planning.
Allen's unwillingness to take the material in a more imaginative direction, however, proves to be Match Point's major stumbling block. For example, Allen could have borrowed a major plot point from Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy and, in effect, create a more satisfying, less familiar direction for Match Point. Although Allen early on hints that Match Point will explore some of the same territory and issues as Fyodor Dostoevsky did in Crime and Punishment (Chris reads Crime and Punishment along with a reading companion in order to impress Alec Hewitt), the perfunctory third act means that those issues will be only superficially explored.
That's not to say that Match Point is an unsatisfying film (it's not), but, with one or two better developed scenes or more imaginative plot turns, it could have been much more. As it is, Match Point builds up goodwill through the early expository scenes that methodically follow Chris from impoverished tennis instructor to the son-in-law of a wealthy, influential man (and a bright future for himself) and, of course, the early scenes of Chris and Nola's illicit relationship that ultimately threaten everything Chris has achieved through his good looks and easy charm. Chris' personal and professional path, along with his prognostications on luck, echoes Patricia Highsmith's fictional Ripley character, Thomas Ripley (e.g., The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley's Game), an amoral, sociopathic bi-sexual, social climber, thief, and murderer, and the central character in Strangers on a Train, Guy Haines, a tennis pro who wants to marry for love and social mobility. Guy's aspirations are hindered by his estranged wife's refusal to grant him a divorce. Enter the sociopathic Bruno Anthony, who offers Guy a trade of dubious value. Strangers on a Train, of course, was memorably adapted for film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951.
Jonathan Rhys-Myers plays Chris as a minimally sympathetic character, but that's partly a function of a shallow, underwritten characterization (even if he shares a pedigree with Patricia Highsmith's Ripley character). Allen leaves details of Chris' past life intentionally blank, and his careful, deliberate speech is meant to convey a character constantly calculating how best advance his goals of self-advancement and financial success. As the mercurial Nola, Scarlett Johansson acquits herself well, if unevenly (especially later in the film when she's forced to convey her character's increasing frustration at Chris' vacillating behavior through histrionics that occasionally ring false). Johansson is, however, at her best during the early scenes, as she and Rhys-Myers exchange erotically charged dialogue. Rhys-Meyers shares an onscreen chemistry with Johansson otherwise missing from his dialogue scenes with Emily Mortimer (unsurprising, of course, given that Rhys-Meyers’ character marries Chloe for her money and wealth, and not for love or even lust).In addition, Matthew Goode brings an insouciant, Rupert Everett-like charm to his scenes as the soon-to-be-dissipated Tom Hewitt and the always (or almost always) watchable Brian Cox as Chris' real object of desire, also deserve mention for their contributions to a film that ultimately proves that Woody Allen is more than capable of creating stylish, mainstream entertainment with attractive stars and production values to match. More should be expected from someone of Allen's talents as a filmmaker and oeuvre.
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originally posted: 01/06/06 19:08:15