Match Point (2005) / Drama-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for sexuality and themes
Running Time: 124 min.

Cast: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer, Matthew Goode, Brian Cox, Penelope Wilton
Director: Woody Allen
Screenplay: Woody Allen
Review published January 16, 2006

For the past 10 or 15 years, Woody Allen (Melinda and Melinda, Anything Else) has been trying, both consciously and subconsciously, to regain his status as one of the premier auteurs in the filmmaking business.  For many of these attempts, Allen looked to the successes he had earlier in his career and tried to replicate them, but the public mostly ignored them, not really wanting to see him do films they've seen before, only less effective.  It's interesting to note that Allen finally achieves success by finally doing something he's really known for, as Match Point is only an opening credits sequence and quaint opera score away from being devoid of many of the Allen staples we've come to recognize.

My theory regarding his success here come mainly due to a combination of Allen's strengths, and als  a weakness in the genre he has chosen to dabble in here -- dramatic thrillers.  Allen's forte has always been in interesting dialogue and well-rounded characterizations, which are two things that suspense vehicles are usually devoid of, as they are generally mounted on heavy emphasis in plotting, music, and camera techniques.  It is because of Allen's strong character development that Match Point becomes such a refreshing change of pace in a very derivative field, as the suspense is generated by involving us deeply into the characters and their motivations.  While symbolism abounds, as well as choice motifs, the subdued way in which Allen approaches the material leads to a fascinating character study, and even when we know where things will eventually lead, the way in which things proceed is elegant, skillful, and richly developed.

Rhys-Meyers (Bend It Like Beckham, Velvet Goldmine) plays a former professional tennis player, Chris Wilton, a firm believer in luck that sees good fortunes come his way when he marries into a wealthy family.  His new wife, Chloe (Mortimer, Formula 51), adores him, and so does Chloe's wealthy businessman father, Alec (Cox, The Bourne Supremacy), who secures Chis a cushy job in the company.  As good are things are going, Chris still can't help but be madly attracted to his brother-in-law Tom's (Goode, Chasing Liberty) fiancée, a struggling American actress named Nola Rice (Johansson, In Good Company).  After a bit of resistance, they both give into their temptations, although his obsession with Nola soon puts a damper on his relationship with Chloe, who has been focused on conceiving a child. 

The plot summary above isn't quite complete, as providing any further details would probably lead to a few spoilers, so I'll refrain, since they aren't important to the overall review.  While touted as a thriller, Match Point isn't really out to thrill in the traditional sense.  It is more of a study in obsession, lust, guilt, and the madness that can occur when easy solutions that will alter the course of one's life seem completely out of reach. 

Allen's writing is smart and assured, as it always has been, and unlike most Allen dramas, it isn't tempered with any comic relief.  Match Point is a straight-faced, somber affair, dealing with dark subject matter in very composed fashion, and Allen does a masterful job in drawing in allusions to tragic operas from which the main story of the film draws inspiration, namely, "La Traviata" and "Rigoletto", even playing musical pieces from the operas themselves for dramatic effect.

While Allen is on point here, I have to mention that the film would probably not have been nearly as effective were it not for the performance by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who effectively captures the coldness of his feelings and the distracted nature of a man conflicted between doing what's right in his mind and doing what's right in his heart.  He treads the line between being likeable and despicable so well, that we are conflicted in our feelings as to whether or not we should root for him to get caught in his illicit deeds, or if he should be successful in pulling the wool over the eyes of the ones he loves.  Even without being painted as particularly sympathetic, we can't help but secretly hope he comes out of it unscathed, almost implicating us in his crimes right along with him.

While I realize that many critics are lavishing Match Point with praise, I do feel the need to hold back overdoing this to some extent.  Perhaps not so coincidentally, Match Point is Allen's most acclaimed film since 1989's Crimes and Misdemeanors, which has a nearly identical plot of a man carrying on an affair with a woman that insists that he leave his wife, which he is reluctant to do, resulting in stagnation to the point where it all threatens to fall apart on all sides.  Even if Match Point is the most un-Allen-like film, it is still ground he has covered to some extent before and, dare I say, he did it better in Crimes than he does here.

That's not to take away from my recommendation of Match Point as an absorbing drama about crimes of passion, as it is well-made, superbly acted, and crafted with a deftness that Allen hasn't fully displayed in many years.   While Allen will probably be most remembered for his comedies, and to some extent, his serious dramas, with Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors, arguably Allen's best two films in the post-Hannah and Her Sisters phase of his career, he shows that he could also be one of the best filmmakers in the thriller genre working today if he were so inclined.  Match Point is Allen's most bleak film, full of conflicted loyalties and a skewed sense of morality that is disturbing yet fascinating at the same time.  Carnal passions and morbid thoughts are all in the mix, and, as it also is in the game of tennis that is regularly alluded to in the film, love means zero

Qwipster's rating:

©2006 Vince Leo