Because Woody Allen's early films are about as funny as any ever made, it is often assumed that his temperament is essentially comic, which leads to all manner of disappointment and misunderstanding. Now and then, Allen tries to clear up the confusion, insisting, sometimes elegantly and sometimes a little too baldly, that his view of the world is essentially nihilistic. He has announced, in movie after movie, an absolute lack of faith in any ordering moral principle in the universe -- and still, people think he's joking.
In Match Point, his most satisfying film in more than a decade, the director once again brings the bad news, delivering it with a light, sure touch. This is a Champagne cocktail laced with strychnine. You would have to go back to the heady, amoral heyday of Ernst Lubitsch or Billy Wilder to find cynicism so deftly turned into superior entertainment. At the very beginning, Allen's hero, a young tennis player recently retired from the professional tour, explains that the role of luck in human affairs is often underestimated. Later, the harsh implications of this idea will be evident, but at first it seems as whimsical as what Fred Astaire said in The Gay Divorcee: that "chance is the fool's name for fate."
Allen's accomplishment here is to fool his audience, or at least to misdirect us, with a tale whose gilded surface disguises the darkness beneath. His guile -- another name for it is art -- keeps the story moving with the fleet momentum of a well-made play. Comparisons to Crimes and Misdemeanors are inevitable, since the themes and some elements of plot are similar, but the philosophical baggage in Match Point is more tightly and discreetly packed. There are few occasions for speech-making, and none of the desperate, self-conscious one-liners that have become, in Allen's recent movies, more tics than shtick. Nor is there an obvious surrogate for the director among the youthful, mostly British and altogether splendid cast. If you walked in after the opening titles, it might take you a while to guess who made this picture.
Directed by: Woody Allen
Starring: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (Chris Wilton), Scarlett Johansson (Nola Rice), Emily Mortimer (Chloe Wilton), Matthew Goode (Tom Hewett), Brian Cox (Alec Hewett)
Running time: 124 minutes
Taiwan Release: Today
After a while you would, of course. The usual literary signposts are in place: surely no other screenwriter could write a line like "darling, have you seen my copy of Strindberg?" or send his protagonist to bed with a paperback Dostoyevsky. But while a whiff of Russian fatalism lingers in the air -- and more than a whiff of Strindbergian misogyny -- these don't seem to be the most salient influences. The film's setting is modified Henry James (wealthy London, with a few social and cultural outsiders buzzing around the hives of privilege); the conceit owes something to Patricia Highsmith's Ripley books; and the narrative engine is pure Theodore Dreiser -- hunger, lust, ambition, greed.
Not that the tennis player, Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), seems at first to be consumed by such appetites. An Irishman of modest background, he takes a job at an exclusive London club, helping its rich members polish their ground strokes. He seems both easygoing and slightly ill at ease, ingratiating and diffident. Before long, he befriends Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), the amiable, unserious heir to a business fortune, who invites Chris to the family box at the opera. From there, it is a short trip to an affair with Tom's sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer), a job in the family firm and the intermittently awkward but materially rewarding position of son-in-law to parents played by Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton.