By Scott Mendelson
Match Point is being widely heralded as Woody Allen's best effort in many years, and that much is probably true. This critic is not the world's foremost expert on Allen, having seen only a dozen or so of his films. But, Allen's legacy aside, Match Point is a potent romantic drama, which eventually evolves into a brutally quiet thriller. Whether one is an Allen fan or not, Match Point is a terrific film.
The plot, to wit: Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). is a British tennis pro, formally a major contender, who takes a job teaching at an exclusive tennis club. He almost immediately hits it off with fellow opera-buff Tom Hewitt (Matthew Goode), who provides the gateway to a better financial and social status. With this new life come the attentions of Tom's sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer), the paternal devotion of father Alec Hewitt (the always welcome Brian Cox), and the
temptation of Tom's fiancee, Nola (Scarlett Johansson). Complications ensue.
That's all the plot one needs, as the film works best with less known about its outcome. The picture slowly envelops you in the life of Mr. Wilton just as surely as Wilton is ensnared in the new life of luxury, privilege and business success. The film ultimately comes down to a belief in luck versus skill, chance versus fate, and comfort and security vs. dangerous, unpredictable happiness.
As stated above, the film eventually develops into a terribly tense thriller of sorts. But it is not a conventional thriller of action, violence, and jolts, but a tense, low-key armrest grabber in the
Claude Chabrol vein, where sympathetic characters make questionable decisions and are constantly caught by their own foolishness. Whether any of this tension is relieved and in what manner will not be revealed here, but it should be noted that there are more moments of sympathetic edge-of-seat tension in this film than in any film released this year. Who would have thought that, between the two major Brian Cox films released this year, the Woody Allen drama would out-suspense Wes Craven's terrific Red Eye? And who would have thought that the normally sinister or methodical Brian Cox would play two completely virtuous and sympathetic fathers in a row?
It's merit as an unlikely suspense film aside; the picture is a visual and acting triumph. The London locations are obviously a new venue for Mr. Allen, and it provides an interesting view into modern British social privilege. Every actor involved is in peak form, and every major character gets several shadings to his or her persona. The two female leads are completely desirable in completely different ways, allowing viewers to sympathize over Chris's dilemma. Sure, Chloe is a bit needy and not terribly sensual, but she's sweet, intelligent, and occasionally playful. Oh, and she's played by Emily Mortimer, which means she's cute as can be, although the English accent is probably more of a draw for a Yank like me then for someone living in London in the first place. As the requisite femme-not so-fatale, Johansson plays Nola in a manner similar to a Daisy Buchanan. Her highly seductive opening scene is never matched, and there is a sense that she never really was that person from that moment, no matter how much others want her to be.
Of course, at the center of the drama is Chris Wilton, a burned out tennis pro who seemingly lives only for new challenges. While he is not a thrill seeker per se, his pursuit of challenge provides constant difficulty as he quickly loses interest in any goal achieved. For him, life is a continuous tennis match against a top seed, with only a little luck deciding the victor.
In this case, the victor is surely Woody Allen. By moving away from his comfortable New York locations, and trading in his quirky off-the-cuff comedy for almost Shakespearian black comedy, Mr. Allen has sacrificed none of his trademark themes and motives, and he has reaffirmed himself as one of the premiere filmmakers of this generation, last generation, and the generation to follow. Match Point is one of the very best films of the year.