Woody Allen strays from his favorite setting of New York City and the familiar strains of old-time jazz to the upper crust of London and opera in “Match Point,” a diabolical look at passion and power. The move not only suits Allen’s subject matter, but also marks his first truly great film since 1999’s “Sweet and Lowdown.” Like that overlooked gem, ‘Match Point” doesn’t feature Allen in a lead acting role. In fact, “Match Point” does not have an outwardly neurotic character at all.
Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is a strikingly handsome former tennis pro who begins to work his way up the British social ladder by giving lessons at a posh country club. Quite the opposite of Woody’s typical leading man, Chris is self-confident, smooth, and keeps his motives to himself. After befriending wealthy young socialite Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), he ingratiates himself into the old money family of his new pal.
On a date, Chris explains to Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) that tennis was a way out of a poor existence. He confesses that he wants to do something with his life–“make a contribution.” Chloe is nurturing and supportive of Chris, and her father Alec (Brian Cox), impressed by the young man’s attitude, gives him a high paying job at the family company.
|Nobody puts baby in the corner.|
Enter Scarlett Johansson as Chris’ Achilles heel, a struggling American actress named Nola Rice. His lustful desire for Nola overrides all his careful efforts and good luck, seeing as how she is Tom’s fiancée. Nola is buxom where Chloe is not, mysterious where Chloe is obvious, and most of all, unattainable where Chloe is his already. Their meetings are wrought with much sexual tension, filled with barbed dialogue that wouldn’t be out of place in a hard-boiled pulp novel by Jim Thompson or Raymond Chandler.
Nola: Men seem to think I’d be somebody very special.
Chris: Are you?
Nola: Well, no one’s ever asked for their money back.
The Hewetts are not awful people, but they have an unknowingly condescending manner, which Allen calls (in the movie’s press kit) the “arrogance of class.” If this is true, then Chris suffers from the arrogance of good luck. Since meeting the right people and accepting the right invitations, his choices have yielded the intended results. What is fascinating is watching the struggle play out in Rhys Meyer’s eternally composed character once infatuation takes over. Something has now entered the playing field that is beyond his control, and he has the audacity to think that his luck will hold.
Johansson and Rhys Meyers are perfect, a lustful match from the beginning, sticking out from their richer halves with pouty lips and smoldering good looks. It is easy to see why the Hewetts would desire them, despite their lower class, and their attraction to each other is undeniable. While they each hide a bitter past, it is Johansson who lets us behind the act to become sympathetic. The actors chew up Allen’s devilish dialogue at first, but as Chris and Nola get more desperate, the strain is believable and their performances prove to be the backbone for the rest of the film.
More than anything, “Match Point” is a rarity of a script that creeps up on you unannounced, throws you a curveball , and then leaves you reeling with its implications. It’s the most sure-handed movie from Allen in a long while, and, while he’s still using relationships as a focal point and littering his story with literary references, this film feels like it need those things.
Allen’s films have dealt with infidelity before, but “Match Point” is not really about infidelity. Although it uses the ridiculously simple metaphor of a tennis ball’s ability to bounce either way once it hits the net, the movie is all about how much of life is beyond our control. At its conclusion, it offers us to reflect on a thought-provoking journey into messy morality. Chris doesn’t have a grand plan so much as he is decisively ambitious in his choices. As his behavior becomes more amoral, Allen makes his point with a wicked flair that’s sure to leave its mark.