A film review by Craig J. Koban


2005, R, 124 mins.

Nola Rice: Scarlett Johansson / Chris Wilton: Jonathan Rhys Meyers / Chloe Hewett Wilton: Emily Mortimer / Tom Hewett: Matthew Goode / Alec Hewett: Brian Cox / Eleanor Hewett: Penelope Wilton / Inspector Dowd: Ewen Bremner / Detective Banner: James Nesbitt

Written and directed by Woody Allen

Woody Allen – now 70 years old – has amazingly entered into his fifth decade as a filmmaker.  His film resume alone commands accolades that any respectable talent could only dream of obtaining.  Yet, no matter how talented he has demonstrated himself to be, it has been said that this New York filmmaker has slide by on a recent cinematic slump without any hope in relative sight.  Allen, to his credit, has never made a truly awful film.  By the same token, it could also be said that he has not really made a film that could be classified as being “great” since 1996’s EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE, a gloriously whimsical and enchanting musical comedy. 

Allen peaked in the late 70’s and further succeeded with a modest number of memorable films sprinkled through the 80’s and 90’s.  In the process, he has also come under critical fire over the past few years for going back to the creative well a few too many times.  That assertion can be given serious credence, but I strongly adhere to the auteur theory of film directors – movies often reflect the man behind the camera, and Allen’s films represent this better than anyone.  John Ford made John Ford films, Alfred Hitchcock made Alfred Hitchcock films, and Woody Allen certainly made his fair share of Woody Allen films to great effect.

Most of his features could be generally labeled as dramadies and almost all of them have the same particular unique features - quirky, oddball characters that suffer from serious self-inflicted neurosis that engage in scenes of sharp, sardonic dialogue usually involving abnormally constructed narratives.  Allen has used this framework dozens of times, but he certainly is the master of this type of storytelling.  No one does it better than him.  Many critics seemed to have missed watching his 2005 film – the criminally underrated MELINDA AND MELINDA – a utterly involving and charming dissertation on perhaps Allen’s own inner struggles with which handling of a subject matter best suits a film.  Sure, his signature moves were all there, but the film was a pleasure to sit through.

It’s really a shame that people have disregarded MELINDA AND MELINDA as Allen’s “comeback” film (if by "comeback" we mean a great film after a series of okay films, then so be it).  I say this because the press and critics have gone truly out of their way to brand his most recent film – MATCH POINT – as his best film in a decade.  Many have also gone on record to say that this new work is a welcome departure for the filmmaker, an anti-Allen film of sorts that disposes with his more persistent idiosyncrasies.  However, let me be the first to warn you that MATCH POINT kind of plays the ultimate con game on Allen-aficionados out there; it’s not nearly as fresh and revitalizing as some have lead you to believe. 

If anything, MATCH POINT is a most startling disappointment.  This film does not so much resurrect Allen’s career (like it needed any in the first place; he has nothing to prove).  As a matter of fact, the film only superficially does away with his sensibilities, and not so much to the point where you feel the auteur director has utterly gone in a new direction.  The film does have some noticeable - but ultimately shallow  - differences from a lot of his past work. 

Firstly, Allen is not in it.  Secondly, the film is not ripe with Allen’s level of anxious and self-depreciating humor.  Thirdly, the setting of MATCH POINT is decidedly different than his usual geography (he substitutes New York for London and instead of personas from The Big Apple they are almost all British).   Furthermore, there is no sweet and sentimental romance in the film with characters spewing out moral platitudes about love and the nature of life.  Lastly, and perhaps most damaging – there is never a sense of Allen’s voice or fingerprints on this film.  Watching his past works (like MELINDA AND MELINDA) you sensed that Allen was cathartically working through his own obsessive arguments he has with himself through his characters.  There is none of this in MATCH POINT.

MATCH POINT - for those that are distinct foreigners to Allen’s work - may indeed come across as a serviceable and genuinely involving character study that slowly gravitates to a crime story in its final act.  However, for the rest of us Allenites, MATCH POINT is really a dry, tedious, dull regurgitation of one of his best films of his career.  The only unique difference with this film is that it’s dressed up in UK clothing.  MATCH POINT is a dramatically empty and frustrating experience when you start to see that it is nothing more than CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS done with Brits. 

The location of the film seems like an anchor to lure people into thinking this is Allen at his most avant-garde, but…honestly…who is he kidding?  Sure, MELINDA AND MELINDA can be called derivative of Allen’s aesthetic and thematic nuances, but he utilizes them and tells a story that genuinely involves and entertains.  MATCH POINT is kind of like a wolf wearing sheep’s clothing in the way it's stridently not an Anti-Allen film at all.  It’s a work so derivative of his great 1989 masterpiece that you ultimately may give your head a shake and throw up your hands in the air in annoyance.   CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS was the culmination of Allen’s dramatic arc of the 80’s with its dark morality play that effectively married droll comedy with its macabre subject matter.  That film was so darkly sublime that it begs me to ask - why derive it to make a film that rings with such exasperating familiarity?

MATCH POINT has many themes that Allen wonderfully touched on before – guilt, greed, selfishness, love, passion, lust, and adultery and how all of them are inextricably linked together to create a dangerous web of intrigue.  It sure wants to be the existentialist ethical tale that was MISDEMEANORS, but it simply does not have the same heartbeat or invigorating pulse as that film.  For the most part, MATCH POINT left me feeling emotionally adrift for over two hours.  You sort of leave the theatre feeling a bit cheated.

The film’s real high note is an intriguing and memorable performance by Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Chris, whose character seems to have grow up in a lower class family and eventually went on to a well-respected tennis tour as a professional player.  He was good, but eventually decided o retire and instead work as an instructor at a posh and privileged tennis club in London.  He instructs several incredibly wealthy clients, like Tom (Matthew Goode) who seems to hit it off with him.  Tom seems grateful enough to Chris that he invites him one night to the opera with his incredibly affluent family.  At the event, Chris meets Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer).  The two seem to connect rather fast – maybe a bit too fast – and they soon become an item.  The relationship does not seem to be a highly reciprocal one.  Chloe seems always smitten with what she sees as a dashing athlete, whereas Chris seems more emotionally detached, maybe because the relationship grew before it actually began.

Or…maybe Chris does not really love her?  Chris meets Tom’s girlfriend, Nola (Scarlett Johansson), an American girl that both aspires to be a successful actress and Tom’s wife…but maybe not the latter first.  Both Tom and Chloe’s parents (Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton) are fabulously, stinking rich and live in a mansion that would make Bruce Wayne blush.  However, it is through meetings here where Chris – unfortunately – starts to develop a serious torch for the unavailable Nora.   I say “unfortunately” because of the dire circumstances.  Chloe and her parents worship Chris, so much so that the father offers him a lucrative position at one of his finest companies.  In essence, Chris has it all, a gorgeous and loving wife-to-be, a fantastic career to look forward to, a magnificent house to live it…what else could he desire?

Well…Nora...of course.  As the film progresses (and I have to start getting more than vague as to not spoil anything) Chris starts to get seriously involved with Chloe while simultaneously falling for Nora.  Maybe he lusts after Nora and truly loves Chloe?  Who knows?  Yet, his life soon begins to spiral out of control when he starts to have an affair with Nora (who has long broken up with Tom).  He spouts out to Nora that he – in fact – loves her more passionately and wants to end his marriage to Chloe (to even complicate matters more, Chloe has not only married this sap, but wants to have children with him).  When Chris seems to perpetually stall on his promise to Nora, she grows more obsessive and deeply attached with Chris.  Things implode for all parties very, very fast.

If you have not seen CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, then MATCH POINT may pull you into its story of doomed characters populating an ultimately dark and dreary narrative.  Again – like I have said before – for the rest of us familiar with that 1989 film, it’s beyond easy to see where this film is heading.  MATCH POINT lumbers around for its first two acts establishing its locales and characters (it should be noted that this is Allen’s longest film to date, which in itself is not a great thing here) and by the time it reaches its final daring act, it seems awfully telegraphed.  There are a few twists and turns here and there, but a person with a reasonable head on their shoulders should be able to chronicle where Allen is going here.   There is a hint of strong irony, especially in the closing moments of the film, but when all is said and done, why should one bother with watching this film when the superior MISDEMEANORS did similar things that much better?  In hindsight, MATCH POINT is excessively gimmicky.

On a small positive, this film is one of Allen’s most polished looking works, and he gets a lot of mileage from the British locales.  He also is able to generate agreeable performances by most of the actors.  Emily Mortimer is especially fetching and sort of sad in her role as the wife that wants her love of Chris given back to her.  The film is largely Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ in the sense that he gives the most layered and emotionally complex performance.  He has been good in other past films (like the delightful BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM and a recent made-for-TV film about Elvis Presley), and here he truly shines.  His role is so multi-faceted in the sense that you can loathe him for his downright self-centeredness, but sort of empathize with him for the sincerity with which he  plays it.  The real weak spot (from a performance standpoint) comes from the young Johansson, whose character is not really developed as nothing more than a grieving, jilted adulterer.  Her performance also seems peculiar in how mannered and self-aware it is.  It’s as if she knows she’s in a Woody Allen film and desperately tries to be one of his eccentric, frail, and flawed personalities.  Sadly, she seems out of place here.

Perhaps the biggest crime that MATCH POINT commits (outside of its appropriation of his other past work) is how completely lacking it is with any comical undertones.   Allen – arguably better than any other contemporary director – is able to harmonize laughs and comedy with drama so fruitfully.  In MISDEMEANORS, light and darkness cohabitated together, but there are no whimsical flourishes to take us even momentarily out of MATCH POINTS’ dreariness.  It’s okay for Allen to get all serious on us, but Allen is so much more appetizing when he hybrids chuckles with tension.

MATCH POINT is not a film to be vindictively ridiculed.  It’s a pristine, slick, professionally made enterprise with some decent performances and contains enough intrigue to satisfy most lay viewers.  However, the Allen fanatic in me left the film feeling that the director has done little more than drain out a story that he did to near perfection seventeen years ago.  Allen is a seasoned veteran of the silver screen and – at least within the last 30 years – he has emerged as one of the pre-eminent directors of his generation.  I guess it’s so sad to see an enormous talent be so woefully plagiaristic of his own work.  If I must resort to lame sports metaphors, MATCH POINT serves up something that appears to be fresh and new, but it instead hits the net and lands poorly on the ground.  Unlike almost all of Allen’s other films, this one is curiously unsatisfactory in just how disposable it is.

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