ARTS

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January 10, 2006

Advantage Allen: Match Point ranks among his best

Americans love a good comeback story. What other reason could be given for the resurgence of Mariah Carey than that granting redemption is even more exciting than schadenfreude? Now, with Match Point, Woody Allen hopes for an even grander reentry. Wittily dismissing his work over the past decade was a pleasure, but re-inviting him back into the fold is an even greater pleasure.

A lot has been said about how Match Point, a thriller dealing in extramarital affairs and contemplated murders, is not strictly a Woody Allen picture. But that’s all wrong. Even without the white-on-black, slideshow opening credits or the scratchy background music, this is quintessentially Allen. Like so many of his works, it focuses on the wealthy aristocrats of capitalism and couples’ romance with unfulfilled longing. At the same time, it features a sense of humor that depends largely on making the audience uncomfortable in the best way possible. True, New York City has been replaced by London, but Allen depicts elements of London society so similar to those in his vision of New York that the two settings are practically interchangeable. I was reminded throughout of Allen’s 1989 work, Crimes and Misdemeanors, which also dealt with infidelity, contemplated murder, and capitalist aristocrats. Yes, this is very much an Allen picture.

In my mind, what actually sets Match Point apart is its reliance on events over dialogue to create a powerful cinematic experience. What remains with the viewer years after first watching a really good Woody Allen picture is the way the characters talk. What Allen fan doesn’t refer to spiders the size of Buicks, masturbation as sex with someone you love, or sex with Allen as a Kafka-esque experience? The plot details blur, but the impressions of conversations remain. Here, though, the details are in power. This is a movie about being surrounded by noise but hearing only a telltale heartbeat.

The story follows Chris, played quite capably by the appropriately creepy Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. He is a dangerous combination of humble roots and a taste for luxury. While giving tennis lessons at a very exclusive country club, he meets the Hewitt family, who quickly begin to pick up the tab for his tastes. Chris likes them, especially Chloe, whose innocent yet independent spirit is captured perfectly by Emily Mortimer. There is instant attraction between them, but not of the passionate sort. The Hewitt family is perhaps too wealthy to remember the excitement of danger. Thus, it is no great surprise that when Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson) wanders into the frame, offering to play thousand-pound-a-game table tennis, she attracts Chris’s attention without much trouble. Nola is more a state of being than a character, and Johansson embodies her well, even if she is never given the chance to come fully alive.

Once this frame has been set, Allen allows the supporting cast to fade into the background as we focus on Chris and his decisions. In scene after scene, characters deliver fairly typical Allen dialogue about the nature of life, but neither Chris nor the audience is concentrating. His is a life of constant internal struggle. His impossible greed drives him to do things that his cowardice does not always permit. The middle section of the film, in which we witness these struggles, may seem to run a little long, but, trust me, there is a payoff on the way.

The last act, the details of which I shall not even hint at, unfolds with such precision that it left me short of breath. We are lulled into the false sense of security that these are just classy British people drinking tea and playing tennis, only to find that something terrible has been growing underneath. I enjoyed the lead-up to some extent, but had opened my mouth to yawn when I found the need to gasp.

Match Point is probably my favorite Woody Allen movie. It is far from the best, in terms of edifying me or making the world a more textually rich place, but it is the most fun, the most entertaining, and the most visceral. It is a package of wonderful and terrible moments. Consider, for example, a sequence in which a guilty party talks to the dead. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, the same concept was played for the deeply meaningful conversation. Match Point sees it as a chance to frighten us and to insert another twist, as the sequence ends with a sudden cut to a detective bolting upright in bed knowing the solution to the case, as if visited by the same ghosts that night. It does not give us time to finish digesting the first element before layering on another, building at a frenetic pace until the very last shot. The end credits appear as a shock, like an unwelcome brake applied to a joy ride. This is the type of film that is needed from time to time to reinvent a genre. Thrillers have been fairly dull lately, but now a master filmmaker has entered to remind everyone that they must, above all things, thrill us. Match Point does not disappoint. Welcome back, Woody.