Match Point

This film’s flaws are easy to forgive thanks to its old-fashioned pleasures – fine acting and taut, suspense-building editing.

By:Elise Nakhnikian
   At a November Q&A before a screening of Match Point at Lincoln Center, Woody Allen talked about having been lucky enough in his career to have been able to explore the limits of his talent. "I’ve often said the only thing standing between me and greatness was me," he said.
   He was probably being overly modest: Annie Hall, which is on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Movies list, is one of a handful of truly great films to come out of the over-hyped and often self-indulgent ’70s.
   Then again, maybe he was just being as ruthless with himself as he is with most of his characters. There’s an emotional chilliness and love of farce in Woody that keeps most of his best work skimming along the surface of life — and it’s been years since he’s come out with anything even close to his best. But that surface looks so attractive in his movies that even the mediocre ones are almost always worth watching, and several — like The Purple Rose of Cairo and Hannah and Her Sisters — skate right up to the edge of greatness. Add in the career-launching winning streak that those annoying critics in the underrated Stardust Memories keep referring to as his "early, funny movies" and it’s no wonder Woody has built up such a deep reserve of goodwill in his fans.
   If you’re one of those fans, you’ll enjoy seeing the aging anhedonic snap back to form with the latest of his annual offerings. Match Point isn’t one of Woody’s best, but it is very good.
   It’s also surprisingly similar to Crimes and Misdemeanors, one of Woody’s near-masterpieces. That’s a pity, since the older movie’s shadow keeps falling over the new one, making this tightly paced melodrama look duller than it should.
   As the story opens, Chris (Jonathan Rhys- Meyers), a highly ambitious young Irishman from a poor family, leaves the tennis circuit to become the pro for a posh London club. He’s quickly befriended by a wealthy client named Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode, Mandy Moore’s love interest from Chasing Liberty), whose blithe, Hugh Grant-ish charm masks a generous heart. Tom’s whole family embraces Chris — especially his sweetly clueless sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer).
   But just as everything seems to be falling into place, Chris meets Tom’s femme fatale fiancée, Nola (Scarlett Johansson). They fall into bed and from there into trouble, veering into Fatal Attraction territory after Chris marries Chloe and Nola starts pressuring him to leave his wife for her.
   It’s all set in London, since Woody couldn’t get American funding to make the movie (he accepted money from the BBC on the condition that he set it in London and use mostly British actors), but this is a peacock’s-eye view of London, a quietly posh place of tennis courts, museums, opera houses and manicured gardens every bit as pretty and privileged as the New York Woody’s characters have inhabited for decades. When Chris and Chloe move into a flat with spectacular, floor-to-ceiling views of the Thames, the audience in Lincoln Center gasped in appreciation. No doubt they felt the pangs of real-estate envy that are familiar to all Woody fans — especially those crammed into New York apartments.
   But the movie is different than most of the director’s work in other ways. The story’s played straight, milked for suspense rather than laughs. There’s no neurotic "Woody" character to toss in sardonic asides. The sex scenes are pretty graphic, too — surprisingly so, from a director who made a movie (Mighty Aphrodite) about a man who pursues a prostitute for reasons that have nothing to do with sex.
   Even so, Match Point feels a bit bloodless, maybe because its main character is such an ice-cold customer. The self-loathing and doubt the doctor in Crimes and Misdemeanors experiences as he contemplates getting rid of an unstable ex-lover — not to mention the remorse he feels for having killed her — give that movie most of its depth. In contrast, Chris seems sociopathically unaffected by the murder at the center of Match Point.
   There’s a bit too much talk about the importance of luck, as if Woody were an overanxious teacher preparing his class for a pop quiz. And, as New York magazine put it, "Woody’s characters do say things like ‘Quite right, Papa!’ more than seems absolutely necessary." But these are easy flaws to forgive in a movie that contains so many old-fashioned pleasures, from its fine acting and taut, suspense-building editing.
   Woody told the Lincoln Center audience that Score, the movie he was then wrapping up, was "a very, very light comedy — I would almost use the word ‘trivial.’" Comedy or no comedy, his current movie is also light on its feet, unburdened by any deep thoughts or feelings. But it’s a well-crafted old-fashioned psychological thriller, and that makes for a good night at the movies.
Rated R. Contains some sexuality.