January 9, 2008

Mini-review: Match Point

(CCLaP publishes mini-reviews of both books and movies on a regular basis, none lasting more than a few hundred words. Click here for the full list.)

Match Point, a Woody Allen film
Match Point (movie; 2005)
Written and directed by Woody Allen

So just how many Woody Allen movies have I seen now in my life? Well, according to the Internet Movie Database, the grand total is now ten, and with still another 16 to go before I will finally consider myself "well-versed" on the man's work; and that's because Allen as a filmmaker is a bit of an enigma, as fans of his work will tell you, an artist who has gone through so many phases and had so many obsessions that you simply must take in a wide sampling of his ouevre in order to have a deep understanding of what he's trying to do. There is, for example, the sophisticated urban adventurer Woody Allen, the maker of such popular titles as Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters; there is the wacky Marx Brothers Allen, of early-career hits Bananas and Sleeper; there is the brooding, melancholic Allen of such downers as September and Alice; there is even a reverent, historical Allen, creator of such clever homages as Zelig and Broadway Danny Rose.

And then unfortunately there's the most recent version of Allen in so many people's eyes, the pervy old man with nothing relevant left to say, which is what made 2005's Match Point such a surprise in so many people's eyes; because far from being the New-York-set neurotic character dramedy that everyone expects from him at this point, the movie is instead a tight and thrilling murder mystery set in London, a movie with barely a single laugh and with no dweeby city-dwellers in sight. And lo and behold, it turns out that when Allen rids himself of the autobiographical cinematic shackles he's been carrying around for so long (the obsession with Manhattan, the self-casting stunt roles, his increasingly disturbing tendency to pair his characters up with hot teenage girls), this 70-something director still easily has the ability to turn in a sharp, thrilling, rewarding movie, something that not a lot of other 70-year-olds can rightly claim.

Essentially a classic noir, Match Point tells the story of semi-failed tennis pro Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a poor Irish hooligan who has essentially made a life out of now hanging out with the rich and famous, especially now that he's off the tournament circuit and fulfilling the "local pro" slot at a prestigious London club. That's how he ends up meeting Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), a moneyed prep who becomes Wilton's best friend; and it's through Hewett that he meets the man's fiance, Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), an American femme-fatale actress right on the cusp of finally giving up, especially given the constant alcohol-inspired pressure from her soon-to-be mother-in-law. It is Rice and Wilton's poverty-stricken backgrounds, in fact, that initially bring them both together; the way they both feel like kept people within this class of old-money debutantes, the way they've both given up on the creative dreams of their youth in exchange for the security such money and connections bring. Of course, this being a murder-mystery noir, things don't stop there; soon the two find themselves in a torrid forbidden relationship, leading to all kinds of complications that I will let remain a secret.

Now, be aware that there is absolutely nothing special about the writing seen in Match Point; that Allen could've very literally lifted the entire script from some '30s potboiler, and that you will be able to easily guess each and every next thing that's about to happen. That's not the point of the film, frankly; the point is that Allen is what's known as an "actor's director," meaning that he's able to pull performances out of all the people involved that mark for most some of the best in their careers. Just look at Johansson, for example, who often has the problem in Hollywood of getting cast in great movies but for crap parts; here in Match Point she is a marvel, playing a chanteuse in her early twenties who is all too aware of her hypnotizing beauty, is aware that it's the very thing that got her out of her white-trash Colorado background but also the very thing destined to one day ruin her. As the embittered, cocktail-slinging Rice, Johansson easily turns in her best performance since Lost in Translation, especially satisfying for me after spending the last six months seeing her in a whole string of movies like The Prestige where she was essentially wasted. Not to mention, turns out that Allen is able to do with London here exactly what he's most famous for with New York in his previous films, which is to take a grand urban space and break it down to the level of the average pedestrian citizen; the London seen in Match Point is the London of locals, of small and cozy streets that its travelers know like the backs of their hands. All in all, a surprising pleaser, and one I whole-heartedly recommend to fans of noirs, crime films and the like.

Out of 10: 8.8

Filed by Jason Pettus at 12:15 PM, January 9, 2008. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |