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Friday, Aug. 18, 2006
HIS BEST FOR SEVEN YEARS
Woody Allen serves up an ace
By KAORI SHOJI
Woody Allen's relocation from New York to London has become a cause for celebration for many film critics, who are heralding "Match Point" as the director's best work since "Sweet and Lowdown" in 1999. Allen's work ethic is admirable -- making a movie every year -- but unfortunately over the last decade they all seem to bleed and merge into a single story under the heading "forgettable." So "Match Point" arrives like hailstones on what had been miles of desert sand -- gasping, you look at the sky and wonder at the unforeseen, unexpected surprises that could, in due time, come flying out of nowhere.
It's not just the change in locale, it's the elegant, streamlined production design. The sleek, silvery varnish on the frames. The precise, taut closeups of the characters' faces. Which all leave you enthralled and wondering what the vague, hide-the-flaws graininess of Allen's recent pictures (worst offenders: "Curse of the Jade Scorpion," "Melinda, Melinda") had been about. Certainly words like "rejuvenation" and "metamorphosis" come to mind. Allen is at a time in his life when he could simply choose to bask in various jury seats of international film fests (he's getting on a bit -- in his late 60s) -- but in "Match Point" he metaphorically strips off his clothes, jumps in the pool and swims 20 laps without stopping. Other seasoned filmmakers must be wondering what exactly Allen is on, where they can get some too, and debating a move to London.
Now for the bad news: In so many ways "Match Point" retreads all the familiar Allen territory and then some. You got "familiar" dialogue like "Have you seen my copy of Strindbergh?" (between a husband and wife, yet) and "I must meet my wife at the Tate Modern, she wants to show me a new painting." And as in every other Allen film except perhaps "Annie Hall," connotations of wealth and privilege are liberally and gleefully flung about, the way other directors may fling about nudity and sex. In the world of Allen, money is porn, art is the catalyst for angst, and love is an existentialist problem that has no resolution. All this comes to the fore in "Match Point" -- the movie that can best be described as Allen at his most Allenesque, done up in an enticing new package.
Speaking of enticing, the centerpiece is Scarlett Johansson, who plays a typical Allen femme fatale. She's a first-rate seductress who is, at the same time, extremely vulnerable. Johansson is Nola, an aspiring actress from Colorado who's looking for work in London. Nola is dating Tom (Matthew Goode), a member of the super-British establishment who spends afternoons taking tennis lessons or sitting down to tea. Tom meets former tennis pro Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and invites him to the opera ("my family has a box, nothing fancy really"). There, Chris meets Tom's sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer), who falls for him immediately. Chris, an Irish boy who gave up tennis because "I wanted to do something more with my life," welcomes Chloe's advances as a way up the social ladder, but also nurses a secret passion for the sultry Nola, whose merest glance could burn a hole through metal. Their first encounter is electrifying: Nola is playing Ping-Pong with another guest at Tom's parents' house (or rather, estate) when Chris walks in. Nola takes a brief but extremely effective look at Chris before saying in a cool drawl: "So, are you my next victim?" At that moment, we feel his heart stop and his breath get caught in his throat.
Nola starts out as a goddess, playing cat-and-mouse games with the hopelessly smitten Chris, but in the latter half of the story she quickly descends to shrill/demanding mode, and her femme fatale status collapses like a house of cards. Her affair with Chris traces the usual Allen route of obsessive physical passion followed by routine, followed by apathy -- and the more Chris retreats from Nola back into the monied, privileged world he had acquired through marriage to Chloe (a prominent position in her father's company, a vast flat overlooking the River Thames, etc.) the more Nola tightens her grip and refuses to let go, which is a position any other femme fatale would not be caught dead in. Nola has already been humiliated: Tom had thrown her over for someone from his own social class and the best thing he can say about Nola is, "She still looks very good, but . . ." After Nola becomes Chris's mistress, the story doesn't show her doing anything much besides working in a boutique and then returning home to await his call. Is it any wonder then that his calls become less frequent: Chris is too ambitious to keep pining for a woman who makes herself so available.
In the end though, the world of "Match Point" is a world cocooned in Allen-dom, where women like Nola are willing to relinquish their power in the name of love or able to afford London rents on very little income, where the English uppercrust talk like they're auditioning for Masterpiece Theater, and the only payoff for betrayal and worse is moral angst tempered by a sense of existential irony. Still, there's no denying it: It all looks very good, and as with Nola, it's hard to tear your eyes away.