Solid Wood

Washington City Paper | January 6, 2006
Miss the opening credits of Match Point and you may not be able to identify its director—even if he is one of cinema’s great recidivists. For one thing, the movie is set in London. For another, most of the actors are British. And they play characters who are at ease with their lots in life, who twitter about the frivolities of the day and balk whenever the talk gets too serious or philosophical. Most surprising of all, neither the director nor a hand-wringing stand-in is anywhere to be seen—not in the lead, not even as a minor character.

But then the patriarch of Match Point’s central family sizes up a potential son-in-law. “He’s not trivial,” he says. “We had a very interesting conversation the other day about Dostoevski.” Ah. This is a Woody Allen movie, after all—and the first good one since the neurotic New Yorker realized that a significant shake-up was in order if he were to once again be regarded as, well, significant. After the spectacular failure of last year’s Melinda and Melinda, a halfassed half-comedy/half-tragedy attempt at novelty, it’s no wonder that the auteur’s watchable latest is being heralded as a sort of second coming.

There are more traces of the old Woody than just the occasional line of dialogue, though. Match Point’s story, about the extreme measures a person will take to protect his interests, echoes that of 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. And its women—sigh. There’s a sour shrew, an aspiring baby factory, and a madonna/whore. Needless to say, none of them is terribly likable, although at least some viewers should see a little strength in the last—despite the fact that Allen’s script more or less removes the “madonna” and replaces it with “crazy, demanding bitch.”

The director explains his title right at the start. Over a graceful, slow-motion shot of a tennis ball being volleyed back and forth over a net, former professional player Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) talks about luck versus talent. “The man who said, ‘I’d rather be lucky than good’ saw deeply into life,” he says. Then the ball clips the very top of the net, lingering for a moment above it and teasing the off-camera competitors as they hold their breath. It goes one way, you win. It goes the other, you lose.

Keeping that in mind makes watching Match Point a bit like viewing only one chapter of Sliding Doors—or, not to give too much away, only the tragic half of Melinda and Melinda. Chris, who knows he doesn’t have the talent of the top seeds, decides to chuck the circuit and become a tennis instructor in London. His first student is Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), a lad of leisure who discovers that he and Chris share a love of opera. After a night out with the wealthy Hewetts—parents Eleanor and Alec (Penelope Wilton and Brian Cox) and Tom’s sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer)—Chris soon finds himself part of the family. He’s brotherly best buds with Tom. He’s handed a nothing-to-sneeze-at job at Papa Hewett’s behemoth company. He’s even engaged to Chloe.

Accidentally slipping into all of this bland poshitude leaves the formerly money-strapped Irishman grateful, yes. But that doesn’t mean he’s stopped himself from looking for something more than the favors of some English upper-crusties who have an appropriate outfit to match each of their hobbies. Naturally, something more comes in the form of Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), a struggling American actress who also happens to be Tom’s fiancée.

Nola is the only fire in the Hewitt household, due to both Allen’s writing and Johansson’s sultry performance. Her first line, cooed as she looks for a pingpong partner, is “Who’s my next victim?” She gets angry, wears clingy outfits, and smokes her cigarettes as if channeling Lauren Bacall. You wonder why the hell she’s chosen to commit to the buttoned-down twits who are her future in-laws, and after she and Chris boil down the reasons for their respective engagements to “He’s very handsome” and “She’s very sweet,” the outsiders’ eventual affair seems inevitable.

You’d buy it, too, if Chris weren’t as charm-challenged as the Hewetts. Rhys Meyers’ performance, as blank as his Calvin Klein looks, is nearly as problematic as Will Ferrell’s stuttering turn in Melinda and Melinda. Whether Chris is getting a new job, making a new friend, or moving into a gigantic loft after he and Chloe are married, Rhys Meyers’ face is expressionless and his delivery narcotic—a little beyond the guarded and enigmatic character Chris is supposed to be. (When Tom invites him to the opera the day they meet, his reaction is a monotone “My God. I’d love to.”) But whereas Ferrell was only one car in a giant pileup, Rhys Meyers is the only thing that loses control here. He’s supported not only by a terrific cast—Cox, Wilton, Goode, and Mortimer pull off their characters’ insipid pleasantness effortlessly—but also by a compelling, tightly constructed story. It’s even arguable that the character’s extreme passivity makes Match Point’s dramatic, desperate turn all the more shocking.

Allen insisted on filming mostly on London’s lighter-gray days, capturing with cinematographer Remi Adefarasin a subtle sense of foreboding. (The burst of passion that takes place in a rain-drenched wheat field is a tad less understated.) And no one films the overcultured quite like he does. A significant development takes place at the Tate Modern; wining, dining, and theater fill the family’s evenings; and scratchy opera recordings replace Allen’s favored jazz. When Chris finally faces a choice between ruining the glittering life he’s become accustomed to or ruining someone else’s, it might be a little too easy to sympathize with his decision.

Melodrama threatens, of course, but even Match Point’s most operatic moments don’t seem too out of keeping with its director’s trademark realism. Perhaps more gratifying for fans, Allen’s ear for dialogue has also returned—though a few clunkers did sneak past. “What’s a beautiful young American pingpong player doing mingling amongst the British upper class?” for example, doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. And when Chris begins one of his retorts with “Sophocles said...,” well, it sounds like a line from one of those other Woody Allen movies.

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