Woody Allen has always been hot or cold for me. When his films are really good (Annie Hall, Radio Days), they deftly mix comedy and drama with surprising wit and insight. When they aren’t so good (Alice, Small Time Crooks), they are pretentious, meandering and ultimately unbearable. To be honest, the last decade his been a rough patch for Allen. Hollywood Ending (2003) was emblematic of his troubles: the comedy seemed desperate and recycled; the drama, insincere and un-involving. His last great film was 1994’s Bullets Over Broadway; his last good one was 1996’s fluffy Everyone Says I Love You. To be fair to the Woodman, I think to a certain degree, he’s been a victim of his own success. He’s written and directed numerous good films and surprising number of great ones, yet instead of forgiving him for atrocities like Anything Else or the mediocre Mighty Aphrodite (did they really give Mira Sorvino an Oscar for that?), it seems we cut him less slack because we have such high standards for him.
Which brings us to the good news: Match Point is a success for Allen. The critics referring to it as a “return to form” really mean “hey, finally a Woody Allen movie that doesn’t suck!” In truth, Match Point couldn’t be more different from the New York neurotica we’ve come to expect from him. His recurring theme of infidelity is there, but there?s very little comedy here and what precious few laughs there are come from the darkest of subject matter. Match Point tells the story of a retired, almost-great tennis pro (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) who becomes involved with a very wealthy British family, resulting in all sorts of unexpected complications.
The cast, overall, is solid. Rhys-Meyers does pretty well in a part that might be described as the stereotypical Jude Law role (i.e. a fey prettyboy, who’s a charming but sophisticated cad). It takes Rhys-Meyers a good half hour to really settle into the role, but once the conflict ratchets up, he’s just fine. His only drawback is he has to work hard at maintaining the kind of charisma that Law casts off naturally. As one of his love interests (and the daughter from the wealthy family), Emily Mortimer offsets her character?s neuroses with genuine sweetness. Her character is needy, but never seems desperate, weak or irritating (a fate that befalls many Allen heroines, particularly Mia Farrow’s title role in Hannah and Her Sisters). As Rhys-Meyers? best friend (and Mortimer‘s brother), Matthew Goode is charming and comes off like a young Rupert Everett.
The player most lacking in the group is Johansson, who plays an American who becomes attached to several of the main characters. Johannson is too young for the part, which requires worldliness and self-possession that the actress simply does not possess yet. Johansson is sexy, but still very young and spends much of the movie trying to play grown-up when someone like Catherine Zeta-Jones could have played this kind of world-weary vamp in her sleep. In her defense, Johansson‘s ex-pat actress is the least developed character in the story. This is a recurring problem for Allen: the women who become the objects of the leading men’s obsessions rarely have enough personality to distinguish exactly what makes them so alluring (see Elisabeth Shue‘s role in Deconstructing Harry).
Still, these are relatively minor quibbles. The story could have used a bit of tightening (a dream sequence that occurs late in the film is unnecessary and obvious), but overall Allen has crafted a most unique tale, full of surprises and rife with questions about human nature. There’s also a rich array of opera arias on the soundtrack, often utilized to chilling effect. Match Point is a strong film, even disregarding its creator and the oeuvre to which it belongs. By leaving his comfort zone, Woody Allen has rediscovered his voice. With his next film (also to be set in London and featuring Johansson), let’s hope he retains it this time.
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