“The man who said, ‘I’d rather be lucky than good’, saw deeply into life. People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It’s scary to think so much is out of one’s control.”
Woody Allen is better know for his comedies, obviously, but he’s done quite a few dramas over the years, with more (the Martin Landau storyline in “Crimes and Misdemeanors”) or less (“Interiors”) success. Just this year, half of his peculiarly underrated Melinda and Melinda tugged at our emotions instead of our funny bone, very effectively in both cases if you ask me. Other critics are much fonder of “Match Point”, which is indeed a pretty damn great film, though I have one or two small quibbles with it.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers stars as Chris Wilton, a poor Irish boy who becomes a tennis pro then takes sort of an easy way out, giving up touring to become an instructor in a posh London country club. With deft storytelling, Allen quickly establishes this then brings in Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), a charismatic upper class Englishman who takes the somewhat naïve protagonist into his world, seducing him with promises of wealth and influence, boxes at the opera, polo ponies… and his beautiful and bright sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer). We think we know where this is going, but then the deck is reshuffled and a wild card shows up: Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), a stunningly gorgeous struggling actress from America. Chris can’t help but make a move for her, aggressively drawn to her sensuous lips… Until it’s revealed that she’s the fiancée of his new friend Tom. Again, we think we got this yarn figured out, but the twists just keep on coming.
Critics who saw the film in Cannes have all been saying this is a huge departure for Allen, and considering that at times it’s kind of an erotic thriller and that it revolves around a bunch of youngsters in London, it is. Still, I could feel his distinctively clever and mischievous hand at work throughout. He’s not going for overt laughs here, but he’s using some of the same proven techniques. Set-up, punchline. He also revisits many of his favorite themes, notably the tragedy of being with the perfect girl but not being happy about it – sounds silly, but it really comes through in the film. Chloe is perfectly sweet, caring and understanding, she even helps Chris get a good job, move up in the world, etc. Yet there’s that sense of claustrophobia that can come with too much love. Chloe is putting pressure on him, she wants to get married! she wants babies! Chris? He wants Nola. It’s not about love, or else it’s self-delusional; listening to all that opera, a man might actually start to long for impossible romance and tragedy… or maybe he’s just thinking with his dick
I’ve said many times that la Scarlett is not the best actress in the world. She’s got that mix of intense sexiness and unexpected insecurity that can be quite intoxicating, and sometimes that’s all the part asks for and that’s fine (Ghost World, The Man Who Wasn’t There). But I don’t see her carrying a movie emotionally (she’s a blank in “Girl with a Pearl Earring”) or doing the action star thing (The Island). Anyway, in “Match Point”, that sexy-insecure thing works for most of the movie, but when her character goes into psycho bitch mode, Johansson is out of her comfort zone and starts hitting bad notes. Not enough to ruin the picture, but it’s definitely a minus, especially when held up against the extraordinary performance Woody got out of Radha Mitchell in Melinda and Melinda.
Another weaker point in this otherwise solid production has to do with the third act, but I wouldn’t dare spoil the surprises that come with it. Let’s just say that it involves quite a bit of luck and actions that are “clumsy, full of holes”, though quite suspenseful. In any case, this is clearly what Woody is going for, and the punchline that ensues is both wickedly fun (love the scenes with James Nesbit and Ewen Bremmer) and profoundly disturbing. Again, I can’t go into details, but I’ll point out that “Match Point” shares more than a passing resemblance storywise and thematically with Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley.
So I don’t feel “Match Point” is a masterpiece like others seem to (Scarlett-lust seems to cloud some folks’ judgment – see also: Lost in Translation), but it is definitely an engrossing and thought-provoking movie that even Woody haters might enjoy.