Following a stream of discouragingly mediocre efforts that suggested he may have lost his filmmaking panache2001's "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
," 2002's "Hollywood Ending
," 2003's "Anything Else
," 2005's "Melinda and Melinda
"the Woody Allen of old has returned in a big way. "Match Point" is Allen's first film to be shot entirely outside of New York City (in this case, London, England), but the difference in scenery isn't all that has changed. In writing and directing what could be his first thriller, he has concocted a smart, tightly woven plot that consistently and genuinely surprises with its every disturbingly plausible turn.
The less one knows about the story, the more enthralling of a viewing experience it is sure to be. Tiptoeing around the developments that occur in the third act is essential. Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), once a tennis pro but with the knowledge that he will never be able to match the greats in the sport, moves to London for a fresh start. It is while acting as a tennis instructor that he meets and becomes friends with Tom Hewitt (Matthew Goode), the priviledged son of a high-society family. Tom's sweet sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer), is instantly smitten with Chris, as is the rest of the family, and soon he is in a serious relationship with her.
Even as he is spoiled by the opulence of his new lifestylehe had a lower-middle-class upbringingChris experiences a brief affair with Tom's gorgeous fiancée, Nola (Scarlett Johansson), a frustrated struggling actress from Colorado. Nola is insistent that their relationship can go no further, so Chris ultimately marries Chloe. When Tom breaks off his engagement, Nola is suddenly willing and available. The further Chris is embroiled in his reunited affair with Nola, however, the more difficult it becomes for him to keep it a secret from Chloe and the rest of her family.
To say more would be criminal, but let it be known that the places where "Match Point" goes next are as dark as anything Woody Allen has ever tackled, and just as impossible to predict. A rumination on luck and chancepay close attention to the opening narration and shot of the tennis ball being hit back and forth across the netthe film recalls 2001's John Cusack-Kate Beckinsale romantic comedy, "Serendipity
," if things had not ended up quite so peachily. And in its look at an adulterous relationship that becomes all the more difficult to hide, the picture approaches the same thought-provoking notions behind 2002's "Unfaithful
," while putting 2005's dim-witted "Derailed
" to shame.
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (2004's "Vanity Fair
") is captivating as Chris, a soft-spoken young man whose role as protagonist takes some less-than-savory turns as he digs himself deeper into a whole of lies and deceit. As such, Chris is far from likable, but Rhys-Meyers has such a firm handle on his complicatedly written character that he is worth following and getting involved with throughout the two-hour-plus running time. As Chloe, a kind, unsuspecting soul who chooses to ignore her suspicions of her husband in order to save herself from disappointment, Emily Mortimer (2002's "Lovely & Amazing
") is a warm presence in more of a reactive role. And as Nola, who has no reason to believe Chris' confessions of love for her aren't true until he begins stringing her along, Scarlett Johansson (2005's "The Island
") continues her effortless climb to the top of today's famed young actress roster. One isn't quite sure what Johansson's intentions arein this genre where femme fatales
and cliches run rampant, it's understandable to be suspiciousbut she is written and acted with sympathy, honesty and unanticipated dimensions.
Quibbles are minor, but they are there. The undetermined time line of the film leads to some changes in relationships, professions and peripheral characters that are initially confusing or uncessarily vague. Also, the way in which the pieces of the narrative culminate are believable, even ingenious, but their ultimate immorality leaves things feeling a little cold. Nevetheless, it is difficult to make a film with an unsavory main character, but Allen pulls it off by finding the humanity in the central ensemble and personalizing his sticky internal conflicts.
After being out of the loop for so long and relying so heavily on increasingly moldy barbs and one-liners, who could have ever expected that director Woody Allen still had it in him to make an adult, serious-minded, at times sexy motion picture of such provocative implications. Even more shocking, "Match Point" is legitimately suspenseful in a way that would make Alfred Hitchcock proud. The last thirty minutes are so tense, the unhurried quiet within the high-stakes scenes grandly aiding in the effect, that they could easily be qualified as edge-of-your-seat. "Match Point" isn't nearly Allen's best film1979's "Manhattan" still reigns supremebut it is certainly the strongest and most self-assured dramatic feature he has made in over a decade. For that, there's cause for celebration. Welcome back, Woody! You've been missed.