Match Point
Match Point

US/UK, 2005. Rated R. 124 minutes.

Cast: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer, Matthew Goode, Brian Cox, Penelope Wilton, Ewen Bremner, James Nesbitt
Writer: Woody Allen
Original Music: none
Cinematography: Remi Adefarasin
Producers: Letty Aronson, Lucy Darwin, Stephen Tenenbaum, Gareth Wiley
Woody Allen


Grade: A- Review by Carlo Cavagna

Woody Allen's New York-centric world hasn't changed much in four decades. Twenty-one year olds bond over Humphrey Bogart, quote Dostoevsky, and go see Diana Krall sing (Anything Else). He casts himself as a romantic lead well past sixty (The Curse of The Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending). If he stays out of a film, he'll ask another actor to embarrass himself by adopting the same mannerisms and neuroses (Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity).

Thank goodness that for his latest film, Allen has left New York and left himself out of the script. Match Point is set and shot in London. It contains no Allen-like surrogate. Characters bottle up their neuroses instead of wearing them on their sleeves. The only other Allen movie Match Point resembles is the dark comedy/drama Crimes and Misdemeanors, wherein Martin Landau commits and learns to live with a horrific crime. Match Point resides somewhere between that film and The Talented Mr. Ripley, referencing Dostoevsky's Crime & Punishment all the way.

Allen builds Match Point around a metaphor that's nothing short of inspired. Protagonist Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers of Bend It Like Beckham) opens the film in voiceover, explaining the role of luck in life and tennis. There are moments in the match when the ball hits the top of the net, and for a split second it can either go forward—spelling victory—or fall backwards, ensuring defeat. If you think you know how this comes into play later, you don't.
Johansson and Rhys-Meyers
Scarlett Johansson and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers star in Match Point.

Chris is a washed-up tennis pro who takes a teaching job at an exclusive London tennis club intending to use it as a stepping stone to something better. He casually, cleverly worms his way into the graces of the posh Hewett family, befriending young Tom (Matthew Goode of Chasing Liberty) over a shared interest in opera and then attracting the romantic interest of Tom's sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer of Lovely and Amazing). Does Chris really like opera, or did he do his homework on the Hewetts? Allen never says. Chris, who insists on paying for Chloe when they go out even though it's difficult for him, understands the key to entering the Hewitt's world is to appear not to want it. It is better to be mysterious than needy.

Chris hits the jackpot with his engagement to Chloe. Her father Alec (Brian Cox of The Bourne Supremacy and Red Eye) and her mother Eleanor (Penelope Wilton of Pride & Prejudice and Iris) welcome him into their family unquestioningly. Seeing how in love Chloe is, Alec brings Chris into his company and puts him on the fast track.

Everything is exactly as Chris wanted, except one thing. Chris can't keep away from Tom's slightly inappropriate fiancée, struggling actress Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson of Lost in Translation and Girl with a Pearl Earring). Alluring and unattainable, Nola rejects Chris's advances, but things change. Eventually, Chris must choose between passion and the comfortable lifestyle he's worked so hard to earn.

As he readily admits, Rhys-Meyers really isn't a good tennis player, but otherwise makes a fantastic Chris, inscrutable and controlled except for his compulsive desire for Nola. This desire, which could destroy him, is perhaps a sign that Chris is not totally comfortable in the posh world he has attained. Nola provides him with a necessary outlet, a person with whom he can indulge instinct and impulse. The talented Johansson, recovering nicely from the debacle of The Island, is just as good. While Nola's transition from aloof seductress to train wreck is a bit abrupt, Johansson holds Nola's disparate elements together by showing that Nola's anxiety about her affair with Chris traces as much to her distaste for her own behavior as to a need to actually be with him—a need that seems improbable at best, given how independent and worldly she seems at the start.

Meanwhile, the able actors playing the Hewett family give spot-on depictions of what Allen calls the arrogance of class. They are not overly haughty or self-important; they are not even necessarily bad people. Their privileges are just taken for granted. It's nothing to Alec to hand Chris a career on a silver platter; it never occurs to him that a harder-working, more experienced employee is getting shortchanged.

You could argue that Allen's characters in Match Point still don't act or sound like anyone you know. (Seriously, twenty-somethings who love opera?) Perhaps. However, such characters seem far more appropriate here, in the rarified air of British high society, where a lot of people don't act or sound like anyone you know. Plus, Allen has their emotional repression—quite an Allen departure, incidentally—exactly right. Regardless, how the characters sound matters little. Match Point is not driven by conversational interactions—another departure for Allen—but instead delves into complex social dynamics and motivations. Like Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point is a complicated morality play with ambiguous morality. In real life, things don't always get resolved, people don't always get their comeuppance, and stories don't contain messages. Now that's realism.

Review © December 2005 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2005 Dreamworks Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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