The Theory of Chaos

Saturday, October 20, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Match Point

Originally published 1/5/06
Full review behind the jump

Match Point

: Woody Allen
: Woody Allen
: Letty Aronson, Lucy Darwin, Gareth Wiley
: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer, Matthew Goode, Brian Cox, Penelope Wilton

First, you’ll have to let go of the fact that this is a Woody Allen film. It’s possible to forget once you start watching. It is not a comic treatise about the failure to get laid, it does not feature a May-December romance. When characters discuss art and literature it is the background to much more urgent tensions. It does not take place in New York.

So what is
Match Point, and why am I recommending it far and wide, to fans and non-fans alike? Well, besides an expertly slow-bubbling thriller, besides a lacerating study of guilt, class and hypocrisy in love, it is also Allen’s most successfully serious picture, and his most potent examination of self-justifying, self-deluding amorality, since 1989’s Crimes and Misdeameanors. And this story doesn’t even have the misdemeanors to lighten the mood.

It is also, this surprising film, this bursting of a great filmmaker out of a cocoon of underachievement, his most grown-up treatment of sex in at least as many years. This is clutching, and breathing, and fabrics tearing, miles away from the comic underdog on the make. If the stereotypical Woody Allen protagonist is the desperate neurotic who can’t keep the girl interested, that image is quickly washed away by Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), who certainly can interest the girl; can in fact, have anything he wills himself into, including a life of status and fortune. His crisis comes, as it does in the good stories, when he wants two things and cannot have both. But until then his cool ambition, his predatory drive, give
Match Point a throbbing life you might have forgotten was possible from the one-time stand-up comic who once had Howard Cossell on screen providing expert analysis of a roll in the hay.

Wilton was a professional tennis player – it’s said that had luck bounced a few balls the other way, he could have lodged victories against some of the world’s best. He does not miss the grind or travel, and happily takes a job giving lessons at a veddy exclusive club in London. At night he reads great books, then other books that will help him understand the great books so he can impress people with the fact that he understands them.

At this club he meets Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), a rich and handsome young layabout whose primary interests lie in disappointing his father (Brian Cox) and mother (Penelope Wilton). He might be an alcoholic three years down the road, but for now is functionally happy-go-lucky. It probably comes from his mother’s side. He invites Wilton to lunch and the two have a politely pro forma duel over who will pay.

And thus begins a calculated trip up the British social ladder for the low-born and Irish Wilton – who has lavish gifts and posh invites sent to him because he insists on making his own way, who woos Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) by constantly pointing out how beneath her station he is, and who wins a position with room for advancement at the senior Hewett’s company by declaring his distaste for handouts. And because he is polite, handsome beyond measure, well-spoken, and particularly because he is so charmingly reluctant to accept all these bounties, his circumstances improve with whiplash speed.

But there’s that other thing I mentioned that he wants, and that is Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), a sensuous and emotional struggling actress from America who is engaged to marry Tom. She smokes too much, becomes flirtatious when drunk, is well-aware of her effect on men and torn about the balance of its advantages and disadvantages. She most definitely does not meet with Mother’s approval. Wilton becomes desperate for her even as he’s steadily approaching the altar with Chloe, and the magnitude of what he is risking to have her – all the fruits of his master plan – cranks up the heat of the movie’s second half by agonizing degrees. It becomes, literally, a matter of life and death, and you will be astonished to find, in a late scene, that someone who has done something horrible is about to mess up and be caught, and you are not cheering it along but are in fact very tense. Think for a moment of the talent and storytelling confidence it takes to ferry an audience to a moment like that.

Something that will be familiar to Woody Allen fans is the sharpness of the dialogue, how it can breathe truth into the empty spaces between banalities and how precisely it can articulate attitudes. He can have characters use flat banter, know it is flat, and have more interesting conversations with their eyes and bodies as they talk. He knows that sometimes characters talk to get what they want; and at other, more interesting times, they’re talking to build themselves up to a point their heart would tell them shouldn’t be approached.

I think it’s the new environment that wakes up his attentions as a filmmaker. This is new slang, new streets, new theatres and art galleries and restaurants for his characters to prowl as they work their needs out on each other. Even the performances have a vibrant attentiveness beyond the best of his recent work, because they are not larger-than-life eccentrics like Sean Penn’s vulgar guitar genius in Sweet and Lowdown, but people you’ve seen shopping at the better stores. Rhys-Meyers and Johansson each have their own vocabulary for smoldering, and to see it turned on each other is to see an all-consuming conflagration due to break out at any second. And there is humor, but the kind that comes not in punchlines but in seemingly perfect moments of observed behavior.

You still get the traditional quick-fire opening credits in the old-fashioned typeface, the cast listed in alphabetical order while an old gramophone hisses behind. But this time it’s not the old jazz, it’s opera, the whole soundtrack – Verdi and Rossini and Bizet. Not only has Allen moved his aesthetic to a different continent – the project has a distinctively European vibe to it, add more breasts and smoking and you could have filmed it in French – perhaps even more tellingly, he’s moved to a different area of his record collection.


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