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With: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Matthew Goode, Emily Mortimer, Scarlett Johansson, Brian Cox, Penelope Wilton
Written by: Woody Allen
Directed by: Woody Allen
MPAA Rating: R for some sexuality
Running Time: 124
Date: 05/12/2005

Match Point (2005)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Tennis Bracing

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Woody Allen's fans these days tend to disagree over when his last good movie was. A few appreciated his acid Deconstructing Harry (1997), while others might go back one more to his enjoyable musical Everyone Says I Love You (1996). Still others would say it's Husbands and Wives (1992) or even Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), a full sixteen years ago. That's too much of a span for someone who, between 1977 and 1989, cranked out at least five masterworks.

Allen has hit a few high notes over the years -- Melinda and Melinda was one -- and it turns out he was merely tuning up. The new Match Point reveals him back at the height of his powers, firing on all cylinders and displaying a confidence and control not seen since before the Soon-Yi scandal.

Several elements have changed. It's by far his longest film, at 124 minutes. It's only his fourth non-comedy, but it's the first that doesn't try to imitate Bergman with tons of awkward subtitles. And it marks the first time he has shot an entire film outside New York. The grace and chill of London seems to suit him, as he tells the story of a former professional tennis player, Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who turns instructor for a ritzy club.

Chris's hidden demeanor reveals very little. We know that he's either lazy or a realist, since he's no longer interested in pursuing his tennis career. These same traits apply when he meets wealthy Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), and Tom introduces Chris to his available sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer). Chris pursues her with a mix of restraint and fate; his dark eyes always seem to be concealing something sinister, some greater plan?

Everything changes when Chris meets Tom's fiancee, an American actress, Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson). "I'm not beautiful," she tells him in a later conversation. "Sexy is what I am. My sister's the beautiful one." Indeed, she gives off an animal heat that awakens whatever lurks behind Chris's fa├žade, and they strike up an on-again, off-again affair that eventually escalates and leads to tragedy.

This time around Allen avoids banal talk and references to his favorite operas, philosophers, etc. The sharp dialogue directly applies to the characters and their situations; perhaps it's the English way of hiding emotion that has piqued him. And it's not just arbitrary that Chris works as a tennis pro. Tennis makes a most interesting and crucial metaphor.

Some fans have accused Allen of laziness -- lately his motivation seems to be getting to the Knicks games on time -- but here he's back in full focus. Even in the most routine setups, Allen carefully arranges and photographs the frame so as to create the maximum poetic and emotional impact from each image; Chris is often surrounded or trapped by his new rich family.

Allen has, however, stuck with his recent nasty streak, and underneath its lovely, icy cinematography, Match Point is a noir supreme; Fritz Lang would have loved it. Yet no matter how dark things get, the characters still behave in a rational, believable way. Unlike most Hollywood films, no one does anything stupid out of sheer stupidity. Here, the missteps occur because of misdirected passion.

In fact, Allen seems to have accomplished something along the lines of what Daniel Handler did with Rick or Amy Heckerling with Clueless. He has adapted an old novel, play or opera and transferred it to modern times, only in this case the source material is up for debate. Match Point has a classical feel to it, as if this story has played out a thousand times over a thousand years, and our sophistication, wealth and modern ideas can do nothing to stop it.

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