Phil on Film Index

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Review - Match Point

Sometimes a change can be as good as a rest. I’ve thought for some time that the poor quality of Woody Allen’s recent films is down to the ridiculous rate at which he churns them out, but perhaps the director simply needed a change of scenery to revitalise his spirits. For his latest film Match Point, Allen has left his native New York for England and has taken the opportunity to switch his focus from a bunch of neurotic, self-obsessed , upper class New Yorkers to…..a bunch of neurotic, self-obsessed , upper class Londoners.

Oh well, I suppose some things never change.

In fairness, Match Point does contain a number of aspects which mark it as a departure for Allen. Aside from the setting, the film is also a change of pace in terms of style and tone, a dark drama rather than one of his increasingly vapid comedies; and the presence of Scarlett Johansson seems to have inspired Allen to inject a shot of eroticism into his film which has scarcely, if ever, been present in his work. Unfortunately these surface changes don’t completely hide the fact that Match Point is still full of the deficiencies which have plagued Allen’s films in recent years.

Ostensibly set in London, Match Point actually occurs in the kind of Richard Curtis fantasy world which all-too-often represents the city on the big screen. Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays Chris Wilton, an ex-tennis pro who is now teaching the sport at an exclusive London club. One of his students is Tom (Matthew Goode) with whom he immediately strikes up a friendship. Chris is invited to the opera with the rest of Tom’s extraordinarily rich family, and it doesn’t take long for him to begin dating Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer). The family are rather taken with Chloe’s new man and Chris finds himself living the good life and being lined up for a high-powered job in the company owned by Chloe’s father Alec (Brian Cox). It seems that Chris’ life couldn’t be more perfect - until he spots Nola (Scarlett Johansson).

Nola is a struggling American actress who also happens to be Tom’s fiancée. She’s every bit as flirtatious and sexy as Chloe is uptight and reserved; and Chris is immediately smitten. The pair begin a brief but passionate affair which they end to save the feelings of their respective partners, but Chris cannot get Nola out of his mind. After some time has passed Chris and Nola once again rekindle their relationship and Chris starts to play with fire as he attempts to come up with endless excuses and lies to cover his tracks. Soon he’s out of his depth and when Nola starts putting pressure on Chris to leave his wife he has to take drastic measures to save his marriage and maintain the standard of living he has become accustomed to.

There’s more than a whiff of Crimes and Misdemeanours about this synopsis, but that’s where the similarities between Match Point and Woody’s masterpiece must end. The half-baked narrative here is underdeveloped and unfolds in schematic and predictable fashion, with every scene acting as little more than a way to negotiate from plot point A to plot point B. Allen’s screenplay is also ridiculously superficial; with Chris taking no time at all to seduce both Chloe and Nola and rise to the top of Alec’s company (doing what exactly?), the rest of the film requires plenty of unnecessary filler to carry us through to the climax. Allen passes the time by piling layers of heavy-handed philosophy on top of the action as he attempts to reinforce the central theme of how blind luck can shape a man’s life.

Another problem with Allen’s screenplay is the fact that, as Jack Lemmon said in Some Like it Hot - “nobody talks like that”. Woody’s inability to create, and write dialogue for, characters fifty years younger than him is cruelly exposed here and the frequent ruminations on Dostoyevsky and Sophocles make these so-called Londoners as believable as if they’d just beamed down from another planet.

The actors who have to breath some life into Allen’s cardboard creations manage with varying degrees of success. Pick of the bunch is Johansson who delivers a seductive and emotional performance as Nola. She brings real fire to the part and manages to convey the pain of being ‘the other woman’. Unfortunately, her efforts aren’t complemented by Jonathan Rhys Meyer’s portrayal of Chris. Meyers is too passive to hold the interest in the central role and for much of the film his weirdly-plastic looking features fail to register the merest hint of emotion. When the plot finally kicks up a gear in the final third Meyers does raise his game, but it’s too late for that. He’s such an aloof and emotionless blank for so much of the movie that it’s impossible to believe he has the any of the rage or passion required to perform the acts which he does later on - it’s almost like watching a completely different character. The other actors are fine, with Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton on particularly good form, but few of them aside from Johansson manage to gain our interest or sympathy.

Match Point, despite its flaws, remains watchable enough. Allen does occasionally deliver a scene of note - such as the passionate and charged embrace in the rain - and his handling of the developing tension in the climactic half-hour is sound. The film is also one of the more visually interesting Allen offerings for some time with Remi Adafarasin’s gleaming cinematography worthy of praise. It’s a pity Allen doesn’t give Adefarasin some more imaginative locations to shoot in though; restricting the action to the same tourist board vision of London that we’ve seen so many times (at least 50% of shots must have the Houses of Parliament squeezed into the background).

So Allen’s first trip to London ends in disappointment. Match Point is a collection of ideas and themes which the director has explored many times before and the result is a tired and unsatisfying rehash of Crimes and Misdemeanours which never threatens to become anything more than that. Many critics are praising this as that long-awaited ‘return to form’, but while he has thankfully pulled himself out of the quagmire of dreadful comedies he found himself in a few years ago his films still appear half-developed and aimless. Woody keeps ‘em coming - his next London-based film, Scoop, has been made already - but the level of anticipation drops a little more with every release. The truth of the matter seems to become more obvious with every film - one of the foremost filmmakers of our time simply has nothing more to say.