Written and directed by Woody Allen
With Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer, Matthew Goode, Brian Cox, Penelope Wilton
Rated R: 124 minutes
Woody Allen’s plot appears to be working perfectly. What plot, you may ask? It goes something like this. In the past decade or so, Woody has successfully lowered the expectations of film reviewers to such an extent that when he does turn out a film that is 1) coherent 2) at least marginally entertaining 3) doesn’t include the usual Woody shtick, and 4) doesn’t have Woody or a Woodyesque stand-in romancing someone more than three decades younger than him, it’s hailed as a “return to form” by a “great director.”
You don’t believe there’s a plot? How else do you explain Woody’s films of the last 10 years? They appear annually, like the Punxsutawney groundhog, and have recently smelled much the same way. Since 1996’s scattershot but entertaining Everyone Says I Love You, Woody has written and directed: Deconstructing Harry; Celebrity; Sweet & Lowdown; Small Time Crooks; Curse of the Jade Scorpion; Hollywood Ending; Anything Else; Melinda & Melinda; and his latest, Match Point. I had to go to IMDb to remind myself of these titles and, even more sadly, which ones I had seen. They blur together in ways his earlier films didn’t and still don’t. I think I speak for many members of Woody’s shrinking audience when I say: take a break, you’re a workaholic. How can we miss you if you won’t leave?
I’m being mean and I know it; also petty. Woody is a genius and a unique talent. He’s brave and uncompromising enough to make films his way (and smart enough about his career management to create the conditions that allow him to do so). I won’t venture an opinion as to whether he is an artist (though I feel many of his films display enormous artistry) in large part because I don’t think I can be really objective. I loved his films and his comic writing so much that they seemed like a direct, person-to-person communication to the funny nebbish I was or wanted to be. In the way others unreasonably love the pop music that accompanied their own coming of age, Woody’s movies of the 1970s and 80s provided the soundtrack of my crucial years.
This is not about only liking his “early, funny movies,” the venomous catchphrase Woody put in the mouths of his most vapid fans in the self-indulgent, audience-hating Stardust Memories (1980). I liked that Match Point was a serious film; what I object to is that it’s not serious enough, in the sense that it’s so simple. Reviews made it sound complex and suspenseful, with numerous twists and turns — something like a Double Indemnity or (to carry the tennis metaphor forward) Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Match Point does have one clever twist, albeit one that ties in nicely with its theme and visuals. But that’s not much for a two hour-plus movie. Woody has gone from insulting his audience to starving us.
Here’s the plot: Ex-tennis pro Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), now teaching the game at a tony London club, casually befriends scion of a rich family Matthew Goode (Tom Hewett), who introduces Chris to both his fiancée Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson) and his sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer). Chris seems both guileless and earnest, which in this context only adds to his smoldering sex appeal. For Chloe and her multi-millionaire parents (Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton), he seems to have just the right combination: while poor himself, his association with the upper-crusty game of tennis gives him enough respectability to slip into the upper class with relative ease, provided he plays by the rules.
Nola’s climb into this comfort zone is hampered by her profession (not-very-successful actress), her nationality (American) and her past (a failed marriage), not to mention a neurotic emotional temperament. What she has going for her is extra helpings of sensuality. It’s the old story, and Woody’s attitude about it is fairly conventional: the rich have money but lack earthy sexuality and common sense; the poor often have both, plus the burning desire for the privilege that they see but can’t quite touch.
Of course, Chris and Nola fall into each other’s webs, even as Chris woos and marries Chloe, tempted by a high-paying job in one of Daddy’s businesses. Matthew dumps Nola and marries someone more to his mother’s liking. Even as Chris tries to get Chloe knocked up (there are fertility problems), Chris and Nola are racking up frequent f**ker miles. Chris’ internal tennis match has lust on one side of the net and greed on the other, and they are both formidable opponents. Greed wins by a nose.
Match Point isn’t a terrible movie by any means, and it’s almost worth the price of admission for Johansson’s emotionally naked performance as the increasingly desperate Nola (Woody still has an unerring eye for talent and a knack for directing women). It looks great — the London and country-house settings make palpable what Chris risks losing once he’s gained a foothold into high society. Nor do I object to what some reviewers have noted, that everyone on screen seems dislikable (some are merely foolish).
But once Woody establishes the basic conflict, it takes him an awfully long time to work out the rest of the plot. Also, since Chris seems to have no moral center to begin with, it doesn’t seem like he’s losing much when he turns to murder as the solution to his problems. Compared with the similarly themed Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), which used a variety of interlocking stories and contrasting characters to explore the idea that bad people are often not punished but actually rewarded for their crimes, Match Point seems underpopulated and simplistic, and even a bit heavy-handed.
By contrast, The Matador, with Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear and Hope Davis, suggests levels of moral complexity among its characters while still providing an entertaining film. Its twists and turns actually fooled me for a good 20 minutes. Brosnan gives an all-out performance as James Bond’s sloppy, slutty but no less lethal cousin, and he’s well-balanced by Kinnear’s everyman goofiness.
The Matador is the kind of film that some reviewers dismiss in part because it’s so much fun, while praising Woody’s film because he references Dostoyevsky and Dreiser. But it’s lazy writing and literary name-dropping to have Chris read Crime and Punishment as a marker of his character. Woody is in danger of becoming the pretentious guy on line at the movies from Annie Hall, rather than the wizard who pulls the real Marshall McLuhan out from behind a sign to deflate the blowhard’s pomposity.