Quick, what was the last Woody Allen film you saw? Husbands and Wives? Bullets over Broadway? If you’re like many fans, you may wince when you realize how long it’s been. Allen meanwhile has gone on, chugging away like the Energizer Bunny, turning out a film every year or so. Yet the impression his recent efforts convey is one of artistic exhaustion. They suggest a director caught in a rut, making the same movies over and over: gimmicky narrative experiments (Melinda and Melinda); light genre farces (Small Time Crooks); concept movies that shrink to a single joke (Hollywood Ending); or stale rehashes of metaphysical angst (Deconstructing Harry).
From the tiny splashes his films make these days, it’s hard to recall that Allen was once the biggest fish in the cinematic ocean. From the early 1970s to the mid-'80s, he dominated the zeitgeist with his trademark highbrow-lowbrow confections of existential dread, Freudian entanglement, and Henny Youngmanesque shtick. Combining pithy portrayals of New York City life with a glory-struck romance of old movies and a love-hate affair with psychoanalysis, Allen’s movies showed us how to be smart and funny; in the process he elevated the nerdy nebbish into a pop-culture icon, making an unlikely hero out of a 135-pound, neurosis-ridden New York Jew. Neurosis could be heroic because it represented the examined life—the examined life run somewhat amok, to be sure, but examined nonetheless. To know yourself was to laugh at yourself, and vice versa; Allen’s transformation from standup comic to incisive comedian of manners seemed to parallel, and to assist, America’s own maturation.
And then America moved on: away from the era of talk therapy, away from inner conflict, insecurity, and rueful brooding, into the artificial sunshine of Morning in America. Now there were pills for all those hang-ups. At the same time, Allen’s own sensibility began to curdle. Something distinctly misanthropic crept in, and a self-absorption that had once produced both laughs and insights risked becoming tedious. The director began to resemble the old friend whose bitterly articulate woes you just don’t want to hear one more time.
Well, you don’t have to. Match Point, Allen’s thirty-seventh movie, takes us to what would seem to be typical terrain, among wealthy urbanites consumed by romantic intrigues. But the surprising locale is Britain, and the not-exactly-Woodyesque protagonist is Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a handsome instructor at a posh London tennis club. The club is frequented by Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), easygoing scion of a wealthy family, who in a bit of friendly matchmaking introduces Chris to his sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer). Chloe falls head over heels in love, and Chris, an Irishman from a working-class family, sees a glimmering future open up, as his amiable prospective father-in-law (played by the matchless Brian Cox) offers him everything: a position in the family company, a lavish London apartment, a car and driver.
Equipped with little more than a pretty face, good manners, and a classy backhand, he wins entry into the uppermost reaches of London society; Wilton has hit the jackpot, and he knows it. “It’s scary to think about how much in life is dependent on luck,” he muses in a London bistro as his new friends order up a bottle of Montrachet. Such restaurant-table musing is a Woody Allen staple; but the director is after something altogether different in Match Point. It arrives in the person—I should say, in the face and figure—of Nola Rice, Tom Hewett’s girlfriend, an American would-be actress, played by the heart-stoppingly sexy Scarlett Johansson. Like Chris Wilton, Nola is an outsider and a climber; both possess deeper, and darker, levels of character than the Hewetts, who wear their entitlement with vapid, guileless ease. Chris and Nola are hungry in ways the Hewetts will never need to be, and their fierce energies feed off one another; alone together, they trade repartee powered by a coiled, cynical mutual awareness. “You’re going to do very well for yourself,” Nola insinuates, “unless you blow it.” “And how would I do that?” asks Chris. “By making a pass at me,” she shoots back.
What follows is a tightly structured drama, rife with undercurrents and double meanings, in which Wilton’s remark about luck turns out to be not merely a toss-off comment, but a prod to character—and, further still, a fundamental structuring motif of his and Nola’s linked fates. It’s difficult to convey what a departure this approach represents for Allen. True, the inquiry into wrongdoing and justice echoes a similar theme in Crimes and Misdemeanors; yet the look, feel, and shape of Match Point makes it utterly dissimilar. Indeed, aside from one telltale scene in which a character debates the meaning of Sophocles with two ghosts, almost nothing in the movie seems to bear the director’s fingerprints. Match Point is rigorously plotted (how many Allen movies can be spoiled by a plot divulgence?), under- rather than over-written, and organized compactly around a single visual image—a central metaphor Allen deploys, returns to, stands on its head, and gives a darkly ironic final twist.
There are other major departures. In recent movies Allen has indulged a habit of casting younger actors as versions of himself (Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity, Jason Biggs in Anything Else), making them walk like Woody and most of all quack like Woody. Match Point, on the other hand, gives us a lead male who couldn’t be less like his creator. Wilton’s troubles lie deep and unexpressed; “My father... was austere,” is all he can manage by way of self-disclosure, and no therapist steps in to tease the truth out of him. In other Woody Allen movies such a line would be grist for the usual raucous family jokes (“My father was a reformed rabbi, a very reformed rabbi... a Nazi!”). But no one is laughing in this movie, and Chris is not a talker. His contradictions remain far below the surface; we’re not sure what he’s capable of—ditto for Nola—and this latency and mystery lend a tension wholly alien to Allen’s usual urban gabfest.
With his full lips and intense blue-eyed gaze, Jonathan Rhys Meyers recalls the young Elvis (whom he played, in fact, in a recent TV biopic), and he’s matched in sultriness by Johansson’s Nola. Presenting actors as objects of shining youthful beauty is nothing new in Allen, of course. But this time, youthful beauty is not deployed for Allen’s character (and, vicariously, for us) to swoon over, but rather for internal dramatic purposes, in an erotic face-off between the two lead characters. When Chris asks what effect she thinks she has on men, Nola answers, matter-of-factly, “They think I’d be something very special.” “And are you?” he pushes. She grins, eyes narrowed. “No one’s ever asked for their money back.” Instead of just talking about erotic life, this is a Woody Allen movie that actually does something about it.
Once the erotic charges detonate (memorably, in a hayfield in driving rain), Allen enmeshes his characters in the ensuing complications, and us in a game of agonized guessing—a near-perfect, distinctly Hitchcockian blending of suspense, erotic tension, and sudden moments of dark humor. Every element in this drama is perfectly orchestrated: erotic undercurrents of thunder and rain; the tantalizing image of a tennis ball teetering on the net cord; and arias from carefully selected Verdi operas, including Otello and Macbeth, which move from background to foreground as the intrigue climbs toward the possibility of villainy. It’s not simply that Allen’s writing has never been surer; it’s that he has never written anything quite like this, a cool, tense drama full of nifty reversals that flip both plot and character in a single moment, with allegiances changing direction, and desire falling suddenly on one, now the other, side of the net.
It’s a deft and enthralling film, one that has whooshed Woody back from the art-house pond to the mainstream depths he once shadowed with leviathan sublimity. How fabulous it would be to see him snag an Oscar this year—and not a Lifetime Achievement award, either, but Best Original Screenplay, which he richly deserves. Match Point showcases a famed director winning an unexpected late-career triumph by unveiling a new stroke no one knew he had. Brilliant, as they say in London.
Or maybe he just got lucky.