Very little tennis, very much deceit. Let us welcome the New Woody Allen.
There was a time when a Woody Allen movie was all mumbling, muttering neuroses and irreverent sub-plotting, and many would say this was a golden age. Then, of course, the director rather foolishly shat the nest by banging his adopted daughter and lo, life's little irks began to have a somewhat cancerous effect on Mr. Allen's cinematic output. Many thought the great man's stride completely broken until last year's Melinda And Melinda provided respite for some. Still, as diverting an affair as I'm told that movie was I doubt it quite measured up to Manhattan or Annie Hall. It seems Woody, now entering his eighth decade of despair on this confounded mortal coil, is becoming increasingly jaded by life in general and as if to cement his depression he's celebrated by upping sticks and moving to Britain in order to film this, his most rewarding project in aaaaaages.
Quite why London and all it's many shades of grey should re-ignite the creative juices of a man who turned 71 in December is beyond me, but for now at least it seems to have done the trick. Of course it's difficult to sell the Yanks a slice of British city life without a bankable star on board, and so New Allen Muse Scarlett Johansson has been stuffed in a suitcase and brought on board for this tale of murder and deceit among the English upper classes. Not that the starlet deserves top billing; that honour goes to Jonathan Rhys-Meyers who plays Chris Wilton, a former pro tennis player turned coach to the rich. Starting new employment at a London tennis club, Chris befriends pupil Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), son of wealthy businessman Alec (The Ubiquitous Mr. Brian Cox) and before long he's part of the family, finally marrying Tom's sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) and taking a high-paid job within Alec's company. All would be well, of course, were it not for the fact that all-round Good Egg Chris, butter nowhere near melting in his mouth, is in fact having a steamy, baby oil-enhanced affair with Tom's fiance Nola (Johansson), an out of work American actress.
Bound to Chloe by his want for a life on easy street, Chris tempts fate by continuing his pursuit of Nola, even after she splits with Tom, until she inevitably ends up carrying his child, a scenario our young protagonist finds less than optimal particularly when Nola, understandably irked, threatens to blow the whistle and topple his house of cards. Exit rational thought, enter the shotgun. Woodyphiles will probably be wondering what maddeningly caricatured insecurities the Hewett family must posses, or what archetypal aristocratic cliches they conform to in order to fuel the laughs in what sounds so far like a deadpan drama, and here's the kicker; there are none. It is a drama. As in without any laughs. At all. Well, at least so far as in engineered ones outwith the normal spectrum of human existence. "My God!" they cry. "It sounds like Gosford Park or something!". It seems Allen is leaving Manhattan behind in a most determined way, but before his fan base starts freaking out let me just say the evidence is good that his decision was correct.
Match Point is a subtle beast that, it's director claims, measures the ways in which luck controls so many of life's outcomes. To me this reeks of a cheap explanation as to why so many plot developments have to be precipitated via a frankly unlikely amount of coincidences, but I'll give the Woodsman the benefit of the doubt on evidence of his newfound form. With so much of his script essentially extolling the random nature of the universe and the innately pointless act of being, one begins to suspect that the once proudly neurotic-yet-happy Allen has undergone something of a quantum shift in his outlook on life. So long as he knocks out a couple more minor gems like this before he swallows a bullet, I say. And, incidentally, how anyone can dare say life is pointless while at the same time presenting us with a scene where a naked Johansson is covered in massage oil defies all my parameters of belief.
The cast are pretty much uniformly excellent, The Ubiquitous Mr. Cox in particular clearly enjoying a more relaxing role than he's grown accustomed to lately with a director he so obviously respects. You can almost smell the hot cocoa he must have indulged in after sitting down in his favourite chair with a fine pipe at the end of shooting, basking in the knowledge that he's managed to fit a respectable one in before the next Jason Bourne adaptation inevitably trundles along. But I digress. Johansson serves her purpose admirably, interacting with her leading man with real chemistry in a performance that requires an audience to believe a single-minded woman with a drink problem can also display a great deal of vulnerability. It is Rhys-Meyers however who deservedly steals the show with a performance so cleverly understated that even after the shotgun blasts take their toll it's a good few minutes before you realise that this guy is, in fact, a bit of a psycho. It's no mean feat to serve up a portrayal so balanced, least of all believable, yet lo and behold the young lad achieves it in a style that, if there were any justice in the world, would see him swap pay brackets with Orlando Bloom.
There are minor disappointments to be had amongst the general satisfaction, such as decidedly underwhelming turns from both James Nesbitt and Ewen Bremner as apparently imported London cops, but by and large you'll barely notice the superficial defects in an otherwise slick and supremely polished little affair. It's true that this may not be as immediately engaging as Allen's apex works, but what some people will no doubt struggle to understand is what strikes you in the face from the onset; this is not a Woody Allen film, it's a Woody Allen Mk.II film. I can well imagine some entrenched resistance to the director's new plan of attack, especially if his next project Scoop, also with Johansson, proves such a downbeat little number. I for one will be happy to ignore said individuals, just so long as we are force fed a few less of the obvious London landmarks next time. My money's on the London Eye. It was tantalisingly inches off camera in a couple of shots here. I reckon he's saving it.
Were I someone else giving an uncanny portrayal of me as I sit here now, I would, if I followed the craft of method acting, presumably arrive at the same conclusion. 4 out of 5 Goody Woody Units.
Scarlett Johansson (Nola Rice)
Matthew Goode (Tom Hewett)