Game, Set
by Elbert Ventura

Match Point
Dir. Woody Allen, U.S., Dreamworks

Don’t call it a comeback—not yet anyway. Had he disappeared for a while to return with Match Point, Woody Allen would well have deserved a wholehearted embrace. But he’s been here this whole time, hanging around like an aging fighter unaware of the embarrassing figure he cut, unheeding of the calls to stay down. Such was the ignominious deterioration of a once-proud filmography that I had given up on Allen around the turn of the century. An unexpected gift, Match Point doesn’t quite belong in his formidable canon, but it comes within hailing distance. Is this a return to form, or merely a hiccup in the protracted decline? Too soon to tell.

For the first time in many years, our most iconic living auteur took his obsessions to another city: London. As the fat-free and confident opening passages attest, the crisp English air seems to have breathed new life into him. Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), an ex-tennis pro who was never good (or lucky) enough to make a career of it, takes a job as a trainer at a posh London club. He is soon taken up by Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), scion of a wealthy family. In short order, an engagement to Chloe (Emily Mortimer), Tom’s sister, and a job at the family business follow. The swift ascent illustrates the movie’s entropic worldview: sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good. The surrender of agency implicit in the philosophy is only affirmed in an early pivotal encounter. “What did I walk into?” asks Chris, strolling in on Nola (Scarlett Johansson), a sexy American staying at the Hewetts’ country house. The actress manqué turns out to be Tom’s fiancée. An electric locking of gazes, and the wheels of tragedy are set spinning.

Crackling with sexual energy and casual deceit, Match Point is the most alive thing Allen’s done in a long time—blood courses underneath its surface and literally spills out. Anomalous though it may seem, Match Point actually bears similarities to his previous films. Like other Allen movies, it’s a compendium of borrowings from other works. An American Tragedy, Dostoevsky, Strindberg, and his own Crimes and Misdemeanors are crucial texts from which Allen cobbles the scenario. Ever the insecure arriviste, Allen has always been anxious to show his autodidactic erudition. A shot of Chris reading Crime and Punishment seems nothing more than a typical Allen name-check; a line like “We had an interesting conversation about Dostoevsky” can be dismissed as lazy shorthand signifying intellectual seriousness. But the references to Dostoevsky actually prove to be trenchant, serving as they do the film’s thematic touchstone. Likewise, the Strindberg shout-out is redeemed late in the movie, in a metaphysical touch worthy of Allen’s Nordic idols. Far from being emptily derivative—a sin his weaker films commit—Match Point’s influences hang together and deepen the movie.

In the eighties, Allen’s prolificacy was a godsend to cineastes. By the nineties, however, the pace had caught up with him, as each new movie seemed made by rote. Match Point is not immune to rough patches—“So tell me, what’s a beautiful, young, American ping pong player doing mingling amongst the British upper class?” goes one clunker—but the script is more crisp and taut than Allen’s managed in a while. Employing fertility as a central (if heavy-handed) metaphor, Allen maps with fatalistic grimness Chris’s spiraling circumstances—the passive-aggressive chill of a sputtering marriage on one side, the volatile eruptions of a poisoned affair on the other. The warm opulence of the earlier scenes, when wealth was new, gives way to the cold sterility of chichi restaurants and well-appointed flats. Opportunity warps into oppressiveness. The walls of the Hewetts’ home seem to pin Chris from all sides; his posh office, an antiseptic glass bubble looming over London, is suggestively encaged in metal.

It’s not for nothing that the Hewetts all seem to be wearing unattainable white when Chris first alights upon their country manor. That Allen, a filmmaker who has never been interested in the lives of plebeians, should make a perceptive movie about class is just another one of the movie’s revelations. More than its salubrious effect on Allen’s visuals, sharper and more evocative than usual here, the move to Britain gives the movie’s subject authentic force. In a finely modulated performance, Rhys-Meyers plays Chris as an adept opportunist who keeps hidden—barely—deep springs of class resentment. Fully aware of his status as, perhaps, an exotic object for a slumming socialite, Chris never sheds his feelings of imposture. “I used to w-work for a man…” he says, stumbling over the stubborn word that will forever mark him as common people.

The movie’s deterministic view of class, which has been criticized in some quarters, actually may be its most Woody-ish quality. Far from disdaining the parvenu, Allen identifies with him. In Allen’s last great movie, Deconstructing Harry, the bluntness of the self-criticism was a jolt. (There was hardly any need to call it by its original title: The Meanest Man in the World.) Match Point looks and feels distinctly un-Woody-like, not least in its blessed eschewal of a proxy for the director. (The nineties are littered with such failures: John Cusack in Bullets Over Broadway, Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity.) But while Rhys-Meyers may have foregone the nebbishy bit, Chris actually emerges as one of Allen’s most poignantly personal characters. A man of modest means who works his way into privileged strata, a specialist in one field who fancies himself a wide-ranging intellectual, an against-the-odds success who never shakes the feeling of being a fraud—these are qualities that, one imagines, the auteur relates to as well. A movie about the anguish of wanting to belong but knowing you never will, Match Point is at its best when its clockwork fatalism reveals traces of the confessional.

So—is this holiday surprise a product of talent or luck? The movie may well contain the answer. Following the climactic crime, Chris never loses his composure in front of his wife. Questioned by police and seemingly cornered, he gives an Oscar-worthy performance as a man wrongly accused. Match Point ends with a fortuitous twist involving an old lady’s ring, but a richer, less noted irony is the fact that Chris turns out to be a better actor than Nola was. Yes, Chris got lucky, but he was also good—which, in the end, may be the best way to describe the Woody Allen of Match Point.