Thursday, February 02, 2006

Matchpoint Review

Matchpoint is the kind of sadistic Woody Allen movie that only comes once in a blue moon. The last time was 1989 with Crimes and Misdemeanors and not coincidentally, that was arguably his last complete success. While Matchpoint isn’t quite as depressing, and that’s a good thing, it manages to trump its reference point for sheer disdain and harshness. While Allen is best known as America’s premiere “smart comic” and his most fondly remembered films lay between his zany early stuff and later attempts, few seem to notice the man’s mean streak and the resulting nihilist work it produces. It shouldn’t be so surprising: after all, this is a man who idolizes Ingmar Bergman and knew enough about classical Russian literature to parody it in Love and Death without seeming inauthentic which is NOT an easy thing to do. This Russian fatalism is extremely apparent in Matchpoint, a story about one’s actions and their God orchestrated consequences…or the random luck related lack thereof.

Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) is a former pro-tennis player from lower class Ireland who quite while he was still ahead, accepting an instructor job at a high class London club. By pure chance, his first lesson goes to socialite Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode) who takes a liking to his ambition and refinement, setting the ball in motion. Within months he’s practically part of the family, engaged to Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) and rapidly rising in father Alec (Brian Cox)’s company. Unfortunately, Wilton gets what he wants and what he wants is Tom’s fiancée Nola (Scarlett Johansson), naturally tragedy unfolds…

The Chris Wilton character isn’t made to be particularly sympathetic not does one immediately take him for manipulative or evil, he’s just determined to claw his way to the top of the social ladder and won’t take no for an answer. While Allen usually forces some likeability out of his films’ New Yorkers, the move to London serves only to sharpen his claws: he depicts the English upper class as vapid, empty people whose ambitions serve only to distract them until their next brunch. In comparison Chris and Nola’s honest struggles while perhaps aggressive seem positively admirable. Even when things get tangled and complex they’re the only ones who struggle while the rest of the family is blind and ignorant to what’s so clearly happening in front of their faces. Naturally, something has got to give.

If Matchpoint is Allen’s best film in years its in large part due to an excellent cast. Rhys Mayer is spot on as an ambitious Irish struggler who gets what he wants. Scarlett Johansson meanwhile…wow. She embodies the temptress Nola perfectly. If the rumors are true and she’s Woody’s new muse we’re in luck and the next few Allen films will be worth seeing for her alone. The Hewett family meanwhile all play their parts well, Emily Mortimer’s Chloe in particular fits the role of the sweet-but-not-exciting wife to a t: you wouldn’t want to hurt this woman but you can tell why Chris looked to Nola for intimacy. All things considered, the cast’s English dryness that’s remarkably refreshing consider the usual neurotic New Yorkers. Speaking of which, there’s no Allen stand in this time around, a choice that’s more than welcome considering recent attempts with Jason Biggs and Will Ferrell.

In addition to a successful company of actors, the film boasts better cinematography than any Allen piece in recent memory as well. Remi Adefarasin keeps Allen’s New Work ready framings even in London, but flashes of the unexpected pop up keeping the film fresh. Particularly, when Scarlett walks on screen the attention to detail really shines. It may not be Gordon Willis’ black and white but it’s still nice and proof that Allen can bring his a-game when surrounded by the right people.

In the end, Matchpoint won’t change the world. Allen’s worldview on crime and consequence hasn’t changed in the past 15 years and films about affairs have been done before. Still, by removing himself and New York from the proceedings, Allen has managed to make the old seem fresh again and there aren’t many better examples of this kind of film in a year where the Oscars heap melodrama by the bucketful. Never boring and not quite predictable, the film remains a downer but it’s Allen’s best downer since Deconstructing Harry and a fine addition to the man’s oeuvre. Despite a couple of stinkers (Curse of the Jade Scorpion....Anything else) Allen’s recent successes (this, Hollywood Ending, Melinda and Melinda) prove that while he may not be commercial money in the bank, he’s still got the touch artistically.

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