Friday, February 03, 2006

Film Review: Match Point


By PHILIP WUNTCH
The Dallas Morning News
Jan. 6, 2006

Woody Allen's triumphant Match Point has been heralded as a return to form. Although Match Point is his best film since 1992's Husbands and Wives, the return-to-form claim is too easily made and not entirely accurate.

All his films, most obviously Crimes and Misdemeanors, deal with the vagaries of right and wrong. But never before has Mr. Allen explored the whims of misfortune in such an elegant fashion. If elegance is not what you seek, be assured that Match Point is, above all, a richly entertaining, dark and ultimately poignant spin on luck both good and bad. The film also reflects on how interchangeable and deceptive good and bad luck can be.

Match Point is the first Allen film not to occur primarily in New York and also one of the few not to have a Woody alter ego among its lead characters. Both changes benefit the movie. The lack of a Woody clone does not, as might be feared, breed detachment from the filmmaker. Instead, writer and director Allen concentrates on writing and directing. The screenplay begins in witty fashion, with hints of dark corners to come. You realize the nature of those oncoming corners but not the detours they entail.

Match Point's locale is London rather than New York, and it's the London of moviegoers' dreams. Mr. Allen makes effective cinematic love to the venerable metropolis, capturing both its energy and its ennui. It's also the London of the dreams of the movie's lead character, Irish tennis pro Chris Wilton.

Played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Chris is the kind of character that the average Woody alter ego would instantly loathe. Employed as tennis coach at a posh club, Chris befriends the enormously wealthy Hewitt family. He says all the right things, knows all the most famous operas and never imposes on anyone. His consistent good nature and humility indicate a passive-aggressive streak that, we learn, can be deceiving.

Tom Hewitt (Matthew Goode) navigates Chris' passage into London aristocracy. Tom's sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer), falls radiantly in love with Chris, and they marry. He becomes accustomed to the family's privileges without losing his dutiful veneer.

His biggest challenge comes in the form of Nola Rice, played by Scarlett Johansson. A struggling American actress, Nola is Tom's fiancée, of whom his haughty mother disapproves. When Tom breaks off their engagement, Nola and Chris begin a lusty affair that affects all major players.
Mr. Allen has always created strong female characters and obtained fascinating performances from the actresses who play them. Match Point is no exception. Ms. Johansson gives a dynamic, feverishly sensual performance as Nola. Provocative, saucy, edgy and vulnerable, she's a mass of conflicting emotions, and Ms. Johansson illuminates all her facets.

Symbolic of the screenplay's understated compassion, Ms. Mortimer's Chloe is presented as neither dim socialite nor growling harridan. Sweet-natured but not an upholstered doormat, she's pleased to fall in love with a man not of her class and thinks herself blessed by his ostensible affection. Ms. Mortimer, who was outstanding in 2005's Dear Frankie, is splendid in the role.

Mr. Rhys-Meyers has the most difficult part. He must infuse Chris' serene facade with an abundance of cunning desires requiring devious options. He was superb as pouty snob George Osborne in 2004's Vanity Fair and now plays a variation of that film's Becky Sharp role, the outsider trying desperately to fit in. As written and acted, it's a multilayered character that evokes fascinating, conflictingly human responses from each viewer.

Of the four leads, Mr. Goode's Tom drifts out of the story, but he delivers a smooth portrayal of an aristocrat whose sense of entitlement is somewhat balanced by a sense of righteousness. The British supporting players are all in unison with Mr. Allen's stimulating view of Londontown.
It all makes for a film that even Woody-phobes can enjoy.

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