Even Woody Allen’s fans would admit that his last few films have been below-par – not just by his standards, but by any standards. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Anything Else and Melinda and Melinda were at best mildly enjoyable, at worst sad reflections of stronger films from earlier in his career. And his 2002 offering, Hollywood Ending, still hasn’t had a UK release – even on DVD! So it’s nice to see Match Point blasted all over cinemas and marketed as though its backers actually want people to see it. And, happily, it’s a return to form – of sorts.
A lot of the buzz revolves around the fact that it doesn’t look like your typical Woody Allen movie. No autumnal New York, no old jazz records on the soundtrack – instead we have an overcast London and classic opera (especially Mario Lanza doing L’Elisir d’Amore). Nor is Match Point a romantic comedy, Allen’s signature mode – instead, it’s a sinewy thriller, about a young guy who gets in over his head and has to resort to drastic actions to get himself out. And, crucially, not only does it not star Allen himself, it doesn’t have an ‘Allen surrogate’ figure (think John Cusack in Bullets Over Broadway, Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity, or Will Ferrell in Melinda and Melinda). The leading man is Jonathan Rhys Meyers – and he certainly doesn’t act or sound like Woody Allen.
He plays Chris Wilton, a failed tennis star who takes a job as a coach at a London club. Soon he’s coaching Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode) – and dating Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer), much to the delight not only of the besotted Chloe but also her doting, and super-rich, parents (Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton). Before long, Chloe’s father has secured a job for Chris in the family firm, and Chris soon has a swanky view out of the Gherkin and all the west London high living he could wish for.
But he also finds himself wanting Tom’s fiancee, Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), an aspiring actress from the US. As soon as they meet, they have a palpable chemistry. And although they initially try to resist their feelings for each other, they’re soon having a passionate affair. But Chris is putting his successful lifestyle on the line – and sooner or later, it’s bound to come to a head.
Allen’s directing style looks more elastic in order to accommodate this dramatic situation – more cuts within scenes, shot-reverse-shots, and, in the film’s early stages, a masterful economy in establishing Chris’s humdrum existence prior to his meeting the Hewetts. He’s playing to the genre – and not always convincingly, because there’s something schematic in his juxtaposition of Chris’s two women – Nola’s bold passion and Chloe’s grating pleas for a baby – and in the predictable ease with which Chris takes on the high-flying job in Daddy’s company. Additionally, his dialogue sometimes sounds as though it must dutifully move the plot on.
But the confusion comes, I think, from the mistaken belief that the movie’s novelties will result in more gritty realism than Allen is accustomed to. Match Point was made in London largely for financial reasons; Allen has admitted that it could just as easily have been set in New York, Paris or any other major city. Which would suggest that he isn’t especially committed to portraying London as London, in all its specific, our-Ken contemporaneity. And so we may feel that, for all its smartly-shot views of the capital, the movie can take or leave its location, rendering its story rootless, adrift.
At the same time, that flavour turns this movie into a timeless tale of rich and poor, love and luck – helped by some of Allen’s best-ever structuring and plotting. Yes, despite the surface surprises, this is very much a Woody Allen film. He has, of course, repeatedly cast a fond yet stern eye on the goings-on of the moneyed urbanites of Manhattan; he has even dealt with thriller forms before – in the rat-tat-tat gangster killings of Bullets Over Broadway and, most significantly, in Crimes and Misdemeanors, another story about the rich doing the dirty on the poor in the name of survival. That earlier morality tale is often held up as Allen’s masterpiece, the film against which all of his more recent movies have been judged – perhaps because it comes across as his most complete and powerful articulation of a worldview. If Match Point isn’t quite as accomplished, it nevertheless posits a similarly downbeat take on human ethics, and snips off its narrative at a moment destined to haunt the viewer long after ‘match point’ itself has been played out.
Match Point is out now in the UK.