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The ultimate New Yorker makes a tennis flick in London

I have a critic friend who came out of Match Point declaring it Woody Allen's best film since Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). Does that mean he holds Allen's work of the last two decades in lower regard than I do, or that his estimation of this new film vaults higher than mine?

Both, probably. I would call Match Point easily the best Allen movie since the mordantly hilarious Deconstructing Harry (1997). And that's good news for any discriminating filmgoer, whether they're Allen fans or not. The question that lingers afterward is whether the movie really has an element of greatness about it, or is simply the most pleasing diversion conjured in a very long time by an unusually persistent filmmaker. My critic friend would argue the former claim, I the latter.

Match Point belongs to the line of what might be called Allen's "non-Woody" films, the ones in which he doesn't star and that aren't comedies. That line began with the preciously Bergmanesque Interiors (1978) and includes Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), the film to which Match Point will most be compared since both concern crime and (at least the prospect of) punishment. Yet the Dostoevsky connection shouldn't be stressed too heavily, because the new film really is a departure--less a ponderous existential allegory than a sleek, acidic film noir.

Besides the new genre terrain, there's the actual landscape the movie transpires in--England, of all places. If this doesn't come as a bit of a surprise, then you obviously don't recall the era when it was virtually impossible to imagine Allen making a move, much less a movie, outside of Manhattan. (The disdain for Los Angeles registered in Annie Hall is still one of cinema's most hilarious expressions of xenophobia.) That, however, was before Woody's cultural star began to wane in the United States while Europeans still regarded him as a genius auteur, a shift of fortunes that presumably was not unconnected to his abrupt cinematic leaps toward locales like Venice and Paris.

After Match Point premiered at last year's Cannes Film Festival, where it won raves, American critics reported that their British brethren sniffed at Allen's use of London and environs, finding its details unconvincing. That prickly literalism sounds like the Brits, doesn't it? The point to be made in Allen's defense, of course, is that he's not Ken Loach, giving us a kitchen-sink, arch-realistic England. His is an England of the imagination, a high-toned pulp fiction England--which is to say, a movie England.

No mere backdrop, this setting is one of the movie's chief pleasures as well as an endless source of thematic frissons. (See the movie and imagine how much less engrossing and resonant its story would be if moved to anywhere in the United States.) For this particular England is also a social climate: a place of posh restaurants and trendy museums, of wealthy families, country homes and vacations in Greece. While Allen's work has always had an element of "poshlust"--that almost pornographic avidity for the lifestyles of the rich and fabulous--too often before he has merely displayed, rather than meaningfully deployed, such dubious attractions. Here, in England, he makes them the crux of an inexorably class-bound crime yarn, a tale of social mobility run horribly amok.

His protagonist, Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), is a young, good-looking tennis player who has recently given up the tour to offer lessons at a swanky London club. In truth, Chris is at one of those crucial turning points that face people in their 20s. He now knows he will never be a tennis star. But does that mean he's destined only to be a slightly glorified member of the serving class, giving forehand pointers to pink, sweaty barristers? The future looks iffy at best.

One day he discovers that he shares a love of opera with a client near his own age, Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode). When Tom invites his instructor to share the family box at Covent Garden, Chris meets the rest of the well-to-do Hewett clan, including Tom's sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer), who takes an immediate interest in her brother's attractive friend.

Chris and Chloe slide into a romance that seems a bit more serious on her part, more casual and exploratory on his. Clearly, Chris is attracted not just to Chloe but to her family and their plush life--a life, however, that includes more hazards than he had bargained for. During a weekend at the Hewetts' country place, he meets Tom's American girlfriend, Nola (Scarlett Johansson), a drop-dead gorgeous blonde who says she's in London to study acting. The sexual electricity immediately evident between the tennis pro and the svelte thespian comes as no surprise: Not only are they well-matched looks-wise, but they obviously recognize each other as determined if slightly ill-at-ease social climbers.

Chris' life thus becomes devilishly divided. On one hand, he gives up his tennis lessons and puts on a suit to become a junior executive with the Hewetts' company--a member of the firm, in more than one sense. He also marries Chloe and moves into a stunning flat across the Thames from Parliament. On the other hand, he pursues an affair with Nola, who has broken up with Tom and not made much headway with her acting career.

Such is the pattern that will lead Chris into increasingly difficult straits. While he and Chloe struggle unavailingly to become pregnant, Nola is fertile to the point of needing an abortion. Then finally Chloe does become pregnant, and Nola, unhappy and angry at her lover's failure to leave his wife for her, threatens to reveal his secret and force an end to his marriage. The screws now turned, Chris must make decisions that potentially will lead him toward crime or ignominy--or both.

Perhaps the chief virtue of Match Point is that it features one of the sharpest, most ably turned scripts of Allen's career. One part Evelyn Waugh to two parts Patricia Highsmith, it's the kind of screenplay that almost must be faultlessly plotted and detailed to work at all, and it is. Every scene here adds crucially if subtly to the whole, every character quirk bolsters the larger design. Best of all, except for a few isolated moments, this is not one of those films where every character sounds like Woody Allen. Let the Brits nitpick, but these characters sound not only distinct but convincing as representatives of certain milieu.

Allen has also done a fine job with his actors. Rhys Meyers, whose previous roles include the David Bowie-like rock star in Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine, has the chiseled, too-perfect looks of a Calvin Klein model, yet his performance adroitly captures the mounting desperation and guilt behind Chris' careful façade. And Johansson, bettering her star-making turn in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, impressively charts Nola's slide from sultry innocent abroad to vengeful mistress.

I can imagine some younger viewers might consider the film's pace plodding, and even admirers might wonder if the directorial approach is a little too measured and sedate for a film that, from some angles, could be classified as a suspense thriller. Indeed, Allen's style remains precise and deliberate throughout. The camera typically observes things from a detached middle distance, and each scene has its own careful, unhurried rhythm. There are no sudden accelerations, no climactic spasms of heart-pounding action set to a dramatically insistent score. (Instead, we get periodic infusions of operatic melancholy.)

Such qualities are, one might say, the marks of a privilege that Allen has earned as an auteur. There are no studio executives standing over his shoulder demanding a suspense "beat" here, a narrative crescendo there. If the director wants to construct a film that risks being seen as a tad old-fashioned, so be it: He is the rare major-league filmmaker who enjoys that freedom. And not only will many viewers appreciate this film's quietly scrupulous manner, but its stylistic tack has the added benefit of laying the groundwork for one of the most surprising and clever endings in any Allen film.

Match Point starts out musing on how life often turns on the unpredictable movements of luck: A tennis ball bounces on one side of the net and life moves in one direction, on the opposite side and a whole different set of consequences ensues. Some viewers may take this quasi-philosophical premise as evidence of profundity--or at least an ambition toward it--on the part of Allen, who, typically, lards his script with references to the likes of Dostoevsky and Strindberg.

Yet Match Point is finally less serious--and more astutely entertaining--than such glints of potential pretension might suggest. Rather than a self-serious chin-tugger in the manner of Crimes and Misdemeanors, this latest Allen belongs to the tradition of adultery-themed noirs like The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. As such, it proves to be one of the most assured and profitable gambles in its maker's long career.

  • The ultimate New Yorker makes a tennis flick in London


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