“Match Point”

This drizzly dramatic thriller may be a return to form for Woody Allen, but is it a form worth returning to?

Topics: Movies,

"Match Point"

“Match Point” is being heralded as a return to form for Woody Allen, which means anyone who doesn’t like it is likely to be accused of not bowing low enough at the altar. And the picture is crisply made, at least for the first 45 minutes or so: This is a drizzly dramatic thriller set in London — as opposed to Allen’s usual favorite setting, New York City — and its structure shimmers with a kind of dark, gunmetal elegance. The movie’s meticulous construction alone is something of a relief, considering the half-asleep sloppiness of Allen’s recent comedies: Few people, even die-hard fans, were able to muster much enthusiasm for stale Raisinettes like “Hollywood Ending” and “Melinda and Melinda.” And “Match Point” — which bears some resemblance to “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” in that both are obsessed with those twin serpent heads, adultery and murder — has a sheen of seriousness to it. Next to the Bert’s Beanery quality of, say, “Small Time Crooks” (worth seeing for the great Elaine May only), it makes for a classy take-in.

But while “Match Point,” which opens Dec. 28, may be a return to form for Allen, is it really a form worth returning to? The movie is a window into the lives of the rich and tastefully color-coordinated, seen from the point of view of the less-privileged guy who wants in: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers plays Chris, a tennis pro who’s tired of the circuit and has decided to take a job at an upscale club. There he meets and befriends the upper-crusty Tom (Matthew Goode). He strikes up a romance with Tom’s sister, Chloe (the always lovely, and here, misused, Emily Mortimer), but also finds himself dangerously attracted to Tom’s fiancée, the American femme-fatale actress-wannabe Nola (Scarlett Johansson).



That means serious trouble for gold-digger Chris. Will his attraction to the shameless blond hussy — he’s something of a shameless blond hussy himself — cause him to go over to the dark side? What do you think? To say much more about the plot of “Match Point” would give the game away. (I was appalled to see that the trailer for the movie is an outright condensation of the picture. Do the people who make these things believe that audiences who go to see Woody Allen movies don’t care about piddling pedestrian concerns, such as having a movie’s plot be an actual surprise.) But its twists notwithstanding, from the casting to the dialogue, “Match Point” just feels pickled in artificiality. Rhys-Meyers is attractive but flat; he has the bland glow of an underwear model. And no matter what character he plays, or who that character is sleeping with, Rhys-Meyers has made homoerotic undertones his specialty. He can be touching, as he was in Mike Hodges’ “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.” In “Match Point,” he’s a fashion-model Tom Ripley.

Chris’ lovemaking with Chloe is supposed to be lacking in passion, and with Nola, he’s supposed to sizzle. To that end, the two hungrily clutch and snuffle at each other in a field during a rainstorm (Nola’s blouse becomes saucily wet), which is about as close as Allen can come to putting hot sex on the screen. I think I may have seen something like this in a Candida Royalle video once, and I didn’t like it much there, either.

It needs to be mentioned, though, that Johansson — even though her character is made out to be more and more a nagging, whining bitch as the movie progresses; she’s Shelley Winters in “A Place in the Sun,” without any of the compassion shown that character — survives the picture unscathed. It astonishes me that so many actresses still clamor to be in Allen’s films, considering that for many years now — possibly several decades — he’s had next to no feeling for women when it comes to either writing for them or directing them. Allen is obsessed with home-wrecker types, women so alluring that they exist only to muck up a guy’s best-laid plans for having a normal life. And although that’s what Johansson plays here, she manages to reach beyond the shallowness of the writing and come up with a fully rounded character.

Ever since “Match Point” debuted at Cannes this past May, critics, while praising it as a return to form, have touted it as a departure for Woody Allen: Not only is it set in London, but its soundtrack features scratchy old opera recordings instead of scratchy old jazz recordings. Apparently, that’s a signal that Allen has progressed to a new level of sophistication. And even though we always knew that deep down Allen has always wanted to be the guy in the tennis whites sipping Perrier, this movie confirms it. But that doesn’t make “Match Point” particularly revelatory or honest. It’s a picture made by a boy with his nose pressed against the window, as opposed to a man wrestling with any genuine feeling. You can hear it in the dialogue: Chloe and Tom’s cocktail-swizzling mother (Penelope Wilton, rounding out the film’s trifecta of demeaning roles for good actresses) doesn’t much care for Chris, but dad (Brian Cox), a good-natured sort, seems to think he’s OK: Defending the lad, he says, “We had a very interesting conversation about Dostoevski,” which, when you write it down, sounds like a line from “Love and Death,” although it’s meant in complete seriousness.

I’ve always felt that Allen’s comedies — the good ones — have a more complex view of the nature of tragedy than his so-called serious movies do. A friend of mine had an uncle who’d lost most of his family to the concentration camps. Whenever he was troubled by some minor affliction — a hangnail, for instance — he’d say, “First the Holocaust, and now this!” And that, to me, was the spirit of Woody Allen. As a comic figure, his inability to keep his own suffering in perspective — and the way he made a joke of that inability — wasn’t selfishness, but a way of connecting with the world. Each of us knows that we can’t be the center of the universe, but naturally, each of us wants to be the center of our own universe. Allen’s neurotic conflation of the two has often been so recognizably human that it’s almost painful — in other words, so funny that it hurts.

And maybe that’s why “Match Point,” a movie made by a poor little rich boy who’s perpetually on the outside looking in, gazing forlornly at this privileged world to which he’s always wanted to belong, is so phony. “Match Point” is a fatally neat exercise in detached craftsmanship, and maybe that’s the best we can expect from Allen at this point. If so, then all we can do is weep at the tragedy of his hangnail.

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>