Woody Allen’s latest has garnered him some of his best reviews in years — and I’m still pondering why. To some degree, I think it’s a case of heaping undeserved praise on a filmmaker for no other reason than that he’s done something that at least offers the illusion of being different. I certainly see no onscreen evidence that the praise can be for any other reason.
There were few films in 2005 that I awaited with as much anticipation as Match Point, and none that I found to be more of a crashing disappointment. It wasn’t the worst thing I saw, but it was far and away the biggest letdown — and this comes from someone on record as a major supporter of Allen’s work. I even found much to admire in the generally lambasted Anything Else, but I boggle at finding the merits of this latest offering.
And I’m not in the camp that prefers “the older, funny ones,” since my tastes in Allen don’t really extend further back than Love and Death, when he started flirting with serious and cerebral material, and began flexing his muscles as a filmmaker and visual stylist.
Match Point, however, strikes me as overlong and dull stuff with characters I cared less than nothing about stuck in a transparent, tepid and utterly bogus film-noir. At bottom, this meditation on the importance of luck over intelligence or virtue isn’t anything but a dumbing down of Allen’s 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors with the addition of a British accent, 20 extra minutes and zero laughs. This isn’t refreshingly new — it’s a dismal recycling of a single idea out of a more complex film from 16 years ago.
Match Point‘s story line is wafer thin: Tennis pro Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Vanity Fair) falls in with rich Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode, Chasing Liberty) and his family, including sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer, Dear Frankie). A romance with Chloe, which leads to a financially and socially advantageous marriage, follows. However, Chris is more attracted to Tom’s (soon to be ex) girlfriend, Nola (Scarlett Johansson, who continues to prove that there’s less to her than meets the eye), a far-from-rich American. This leads to an affair and all the resultant difficulties, which suggests that Chris will indeed leave his wife for Nola, especially when she becomes pregnant. But will he? Or will he find other ways of dealing with the situation?
If you’re planning on seeing Match Point, you might want to stop reading right here, because it now becomes impossible to discuss the film without getting into the realm of spoilers.
Part of what goes awry with the film lies in Allen’s insistence on killing off any possible surprise as concerns the fate of Nola, heavily relying on traditional murder-mystery plotting that simply doesn’t work here. A standard ploy in mystery structure — seen as recently as in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park — involves making the intended victim as disagreeable as possible to a variety of people who then all have a motive for offing him or her. As a first-reel set-up for this, it’s one thing. Here, as a past-mid-point device with only one potential murderer, it’s simply lame. Why not just paint a bull’s eye on Nola and be done with it?
This device is symptomatic of the entire airless conceit of the film. Never has Allen created such joyless, uninvolving characters. They exist in a kind of rarefied vacuum where, yes, they talk about Allenesque things like Dostoyevsky and opera, but in no significant way. The whole thing smacks of pretentious culture-vulture stuff. The link between Chris and Tom is originally that they’re both opera fans, but Tom contemptuously refers to the opera they’re going to as “La bloody Traviata,” hardly suggesting enthusiasm. (Then again, it’s easy to understand this once we get a glimpse of the antiseptic staging they attend, but I doubt that’s the point.)
Allen is, or at least always has been, better than this. Trotting out a few of his favorite things in each film is part and parcel of his brand of filmmaking, and his doing so has heretofore been infused with the sensed pleasure of a filmmaker happily sharing his own passions, often in unexpected ways. Consider the use of the opening of Madame Butterfly over a montage of favorite architectural examples of New York in Hannah and Her Sisters. Think of him using the obscure “When Day Is Done” on the soundtrack of Shadows and Fog — and then upping the obscurity ante by picking the version done by British bandleader Jack Hylton rather than the traditional Paul Whiteman rendition. Such things are testaments to a unique perspective that’s totally lacking here with its one-note soundtrack of vintage-opera recordings that add little to the film or the sense of the filmmaker.
Still, it’s worth noting that Match Point has impressed a lot of people, so weigh that in the balance. But for me … I think I’ll break out Crimes and Misdemeanors for another look, while awaiting another Woody Allen film I can admire, missteps and all. Rated R for some sexuality.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke