Since it first screened at the Cannes Film Festival in May, “Match Point” has been hailed as a return to form for Woody Allen, his best film in a decade.
Anything had to have been better than Allen’s recent offerings — including “Melinda and Melinda,” “Hollywood Ending,” “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” and “Small Time Crooks” — which have felt slight whether that was his intention or not.
With “Match Point,” though, it’s as if critics and fans of his long and esteemed filmography want to see something that isn’t there; maybe it’s wishful thinking, the power of suggestion, sheer osmosis, whatever.
Elements of the film certainly do recall the best of Allen’s work, with its intellectual, cultured characters (visiting museums and attending the opera in London, rather than his usual setting of New York) and its complicated romantic entanglements.
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers plays a social-climbing tennis pro who befriends a wealthy student at the club (Matthew Goode) and marries his sister (Emily Mortimer), all the while pursuing a torturous affair with his fiancee (Scarlett Johansson). As Allen himself once remarked in regard to his own personal life, “The heart wants what it wants.”
But there is one specific film of his that “Match Point” resembles most: “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” one of his best, which only reveals how inferior this is by comparison. Allen revisits some of the same plot points and themes from that Oscar-nominated 1989 movie (Johansson fills in for Anjelica Huston as the demanding, doomed mistress) but he does so in the most superficial way.
With “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” Allen truly seemed interested in delving deeply into the ideas of free will, personal responsibility, and our tendency to justify some of our transgressions as being less severe than others. “Match Point,” meanwhile, repeatedly hammers home the idea that luck dictates our fate through the metaphor of a tennis ball hitting the top of the net, in voiceovers and by having his characters say so outright to each other. After a while it’s like, we get it already.
As the writer-director turns 70, he’s taken a glossy, almost cynical approach to the material — as if he’d gotten so caught up in the stylistic trappings of his new surroundings that he neglected any semblance of substance or depth.
“Match Point” has the stylish look of a sexy, psychological thriller — the work of cinematographer Remi Adefarasin — and Allen’s heavy use of opera often provides a tense, dramatic undercurrent, though at times it feels amped-up and smothering.
Rhys-Meyers’ Chris Wilton, an Irishman surrounded by moneyed Brits, reads Dostoevsky, visits the Tate Modern and is only too happy to tag along when his new friend, Goode’s dashing Tom Hewett, invites him to his family’s box to see “La bloody Traviata,” as he calls it, and to weekend visits at the country estate. Yes, it’s all as annoyingly smug as it sounds.
Rhys-Meyers proves he’s capable of smoothly transforming himself for whatever the social setting dictates. But then the character behaves in ways that seem totally out of character — first when Chris brazenly hits on Johansson’s sultry American actress Nola Rice (“Did anyone ever tell you, you have very sensual lips?” he asks within seconds of meeting her) and most glaringly again at the film’s climax.
Mortimer’s clueless Chloe, meanwhile, just wants to ensconce Chris in one of Daddy’s companies and have his babies. She is buying love, but she probably means well deep down and seems to know no other way of relating to people — and as the only truly decent person in the film, she will of course be punished.
Nola and Chris seem to understand each other because they both come from nothing and find themselves infatuated with the idea of what the Hewett family allows them to be. Johansson, at the character’s darkest and booziest, continues to reveal depth and intelligence beneath her sex appeal as she matures as an actress.
As for what “Match Point” reveals, the moral isn’t: Don’t cheat on your wife. It’s: If you do cheat on your wife, and you’re lucky, you won’t get caught.