I hate to second-guess my colleagues, but I'm wondering if all those critics who fell over themselves in praise of Woody Allen's latest movie at Cannes last May were overcompensating because they finally saw something that rose a cut above the mostly desperate ephemera Allen has churned out for a decade. Match Point is a perfectly presentable, entirely unremarkable domestic melodrama parked queasily between opera and realism, two irreconcilable forms if ever there were. Lest there be any doubt that Allen's theme is the power of luck over planning in shaping everyday fortune, the movie opens on a tennis ball sailing back and forth until it hits the net and drops to one side, thus heralding big changes in the life of Chris Wilton (smoky-eyed Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a former tennis pro who now makes his living as a tennis instructor to the idle rich of Belgravia. Two hours of more soap than opera later, with a crackly old Enrico Caruso recording playing constantly on the soundtrack for emphasis, a wedding ring hurled impetuously into the Thames lands instead on a parapet, then bounces to the ground, sealing Chris' fate once more.
In between, there's a pile of plot that wouldn't look amiss on The Young and the Restless, laced with some Agatha Christie bits of business involving a hunting rifle, all in a WASP London setting as glamorized as WASP Manhattan invariably looks in a Woody Allen movie. Having befriended Tom (Matthew Goode), a tweedy trust-funder with too-too-mahvelous diction and a whopping mummy complex, Chris takes up with Tom's sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer), an eager girl (you could hardly call this clingy, simpering, eyelash-batting creature a woman, even though she does something important with art to make the time pass) who's long overdue for commitment. Pretty soon, Chris enters into an affectionate if passionless marriage; a high-flying job in the gleaming corporate offices of Chloe's daddy (a peculiarly cast Brian Cox, buried in ginger beard); and an affair on the side with Tom's fiance, Nola (Scarlett Johansson), involving the kind of sex only a virgin schoolboy imagination could produce with a straight face—heaving chests, ripped shirts, blindfolds. In his early films, Allen would have been all over this crew, lampooning their snobby ways and introducing a disruptive Jew with no social graces to foul up the quiet elegance. Now there's a wistful outsider's longing in the warm amber light in which he bathes the city, and when Chris—a poor excuse for an outsider who fits in mighty quick—hangs out at the Saatchi Gallery, shops at Cartier and runs down to the country house on weekends for a nice bit of shooting, you get the sense that Allen would join the party if only his kind of people were allowed in.
In the end, Match Point is less about the vagaries of chance than about that old standby, human folly—in principle a far more interesting subject than luck, about which Allen has little to say other than that sometimes it allows you to get away with (among other things he's all too familiar with) murder. Like its kissing cousin, Crimes and Misdemeanors, a film that won me over on the first viewing and repelled me on the second, Match Point is superficially set up for moral inquiry. As in that film, too, Allen would have us identify less with the agonies of a crisis of conscience—for all his adoration of Bergman I've never bought him as a serious moralist, let alone a probing psychologist of bourgeois guilt—than with the pleasures of sinning without accountability. Sure, Chris sweats a little while lying, deceiving, cuckolding and prevaricating his way through his run of good fortune, but not even a couple of deus ex machina ghosts, shoehorned in to drive home the consequences of his actions, can put much of a dent in his rotten behavior. How telling that, in the press notes, Allen describes his protagonist as "like every man out there—given the right situation, any man would be tempted to cheat on his wife or girlfriend if the woman of his dreams walked in."
That the woman in question turns out, on closer inspection, to be not just a siren with fatal attraction written all over her, but a raging neurotic, is more a symptom of Allen's raging ambivalence toward women—even the dumb sexpots who have peopled his recent work—than an instance of beware what you wish for. Whether as florid opera or as realist drama, Match Point is less a tragedy than an opportunity for Allen to crow over a man, who, no matter how egregious his sins, gets off with scarcely a scar. There were signs of souring in his view of human nature (Interiors and the horrible Stardust Memories) even in his glory years, and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) laid the groundwork for a long slide into the rancid cynicism that has marked his work ever since. Allen turned 70 a month ago and seems to have made a happier life for himself in recent years, though God only knows at what cost to others. But it's sad to contemplate that we'll likely never see another Annie Hall, a Purple Rose of Cairo, a Manhattan or even a Radio Days in his lifetime.
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MATCH POINT WAS WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY WOODY ALLEN; PRODUCED BY LETTY ARONSON, GARETH WILEY AND LUCY DARWIN. NOW PLAYING COUNTYWIDE.