Saw Match Point on Saturday. To say that it's the best Woody Allen film in years isn't saying much. To put it more precisely, it's definitely his best since Deconstructing Harry and probably better than anything since Manhattan Murder Mystery. Match Point doesn't, however, reach the level of Crimes and Misdemeanors, the film to which it is most often compared, because it is pretty much a remake of Allen's 1989 masterpiece.
Now, that isn't a terribly damning statement, since Crimes was one of the best movies of the past 20 years. Here's the setup on Match Point: Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is a former tennis tour standout, who's now the house pro at a posh club in London. Dirt poor and living in a studio with a fold-out bed, he's determined to improve his situation, as evidenced by a scene where we see him double-fisting a paperback copy of Crime and Punishment with a second paperback--a study guide with a title like "Understanding Dostoevsky."
Chris's chance comes when he starts giving lessons to Tom, a son of priviledge with a rusty backhand. After forcing into his conversation with Tom the fact that he loves opera, Chris finds himself invited into Tom's world of wealth: the private box at the opera house, the weekend at their country house, and the covetous glances of Tom's sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer). Soon enough, he's shagging the sister, dropping Dostoevsky references on Tom's dad, and being sized up for a spot in the family business, which operates out of a huge Faberge Egg-looking office building, which I guess symbolizes the vague cutting edge of luxury, like the Empire State Building or the late Twin Towers once did.
There's only one fly in the ointment for Chris's relentless climb to the social top, and that's Nola (Scarlett Johansen), a struggling American actress. When Chris first meets Nola, the attraction is instantaneous--he's busy commenting on her "sensuous lips" and on the verge of inviting her to test the springs on his fold-out when he learns that Nola is Tom's fiance.
Obviously, even after Nola becomes off-limits to him, Chris does not stop desiring her. And this being a noir movie, eventually he will have to decide between "the lady and the loot," and the only option he will have if he wants to keep his choice is...murder!
Now, the most refreshing thing about Match Point is the un-Woody Allen-ness of it. Allen isn't in the movie, and unlike every other recent Allen film, there isn't a Woody Allen stand-in character -- that's a younger actor, encouraged by the director to do his best impression of Allen as a performance: see Will Ferrel in Melinda and Melinda, Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity, Jason Biggs in Anything Else. Instead, the characters speak in naturalistic tones and none of them drop into Allen-esque patois of artificial, neurotic, rambling stream-of-consciousness talk. Allen finds a different voice for his characters, and it sounds authentic (although I'd love to hear from a real Londoner who's seen the movie on this point).
You'd pretty much forget that Allen was involved in the movie altogether if it wasn't for the lascivious way the camera focuses on Johansen--particularly in the sex scenes. That's recognizably Allen in his dirty old man mode, which nonetheless feels much more appropriate with Rhys Meyers in the lead than it would if the young actress were getting it on with Woody or one of Woody's avatars.
Getting back to the plot, for any of you who have seen Crimes and Misdemeanors (and if you haven't just stop reading, go rent it, and see it now--the Internet will still be here when you're done) what happens next won't be terribly surprising. Chris's dilemma is much like Judah Rosenthal's in Crimes: he wants a great many things for himself without accepting any of the consequences that come with them. As in Crimes, Chris's plight is viewed from Allen's atheist/nihilistic viewpoint, where there is no merciful God and no cosmic justice. That's appropriate to the film noir aspects of the movie.
However, in the course of "streamlining" the film to be more purely a thriller (which is an odd concept, as supposedly Match Point is the longest movie that Allen has ever made, and its pacing is often sluggish), all the philosophical aspects that made Crimes so powerful--the metaphysical discourses, suicidal PhDs, blind rabbis, and imaginary confessions--have been reduced to a single near-cliche image. It's a tennis ball hitting the top of the net, with only luck--not karma, God, justice, or providence--deciding whether the ball lands on your side of the net, or your opponent's.
The image is used twice, effectively, in the movie. However, "some things depend on luck" is a pretty thin premise for a feature film, which leaves Match Point as a slightly unsatisfying experience, at least compared to Crimes and Misdemeanors. I still recommend it highly for Rhys-Meyers's excellent lead performance, and fine supporting turns by Mortimer, Matthew Goode as Tom, and Brian Cox as Tom and Chloe's father. Johansen, though she looks terrific, is a bit of a disappointment in a role that's a bit unevenly-written, neither femme fatale nor girl next door.
But the bigger story of Match Point is that Allen--a filmmaker a lot of people had written off--is back, reinventing himself and taking a new direction. That's good news, and plenty of reason to see a movie all on its own.