21 January 2006

current cinema: Match Point

match point
this review may also appear in the Wissahickon

starring: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Matthew Goode, and Emily Mortimer
written and directed by: Woody Allen
R, 124 min, 2005, UK

It must be difficult to be a new Woody Allen film, always being compared to your predecessors and being picked apart by people looking for some second coming of a neurotic messiah. It's an awfully hard hill to climb if people's first thought isn't whether or not the film is any good, but it is a return to form or recaptures that earlier magic or otherwise fits into people's perceptions of what a Woody Allen film must be. Rationally speaking, this is a completely illogical way to view a film, yet we all do it to some degree. Part of me wonders if someone unfamiliar with Allen's repertoire stands a better chance of enjoying his newest outputs or if the films would do better were they released under a different name.

Unfortunately, that's something that we'll have to leave to speculation as we focus on Allen's latest creation: Match Point. As I'm sure you've heard, this film, made entirely in London, is a rare foray out of New York City for Allen and a little jarring in that it is not a comedy, nor is there an actor playing the Woody Allen character[1]. The locale is primarily a budget concern, as there's nothing in the storyline or script that points to a decidedly British worldview or sensibility. This entire film could have easily been done in New York, and I suspect that was the original plan. But when the BBC says they've got the money you need to make the film, you cross the pond and tweak the script on the plane, if you have to.

So perhaps a British adjustment explains the first half hour of the film, which is nothing if it isn't forced. The acting in this opening is uniformly bad, the pace slightly off the mark, and the writing as bad as anything Allen's ever done. The whole thing comes as a shock, really, almost to the point where I started to wonder if perhaps it was all intentional, if it was a set-up for the rest of the film. If it was, I didn't notice it. To expound on the writing: the first half hour is mostly done with exposition, which is almost never a good idea for any writer. He spends far too much time establishing everything and outlining relationships and motives, which ends up being important information later on, but there are better ways to do it. The writing contributes directly to the poor acting, to the pace, and to the film's trouble gaining any early momentum. Even though the information presented is vital, at what cost to the film is the method of presentation?

Well, there are two answers to that question. At the half-hour mark, it looks like a pretty deadly blow. I'm beginning to wonder how this film was a sensation at Cannes and picked up any Golden Globe nominations at all. But in the end, the beginning doesn't seem all that important, as the film rights itself quickly as Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) beds Chloe Hewett (Emily Mortimer) and then Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), who just happens to be engaged to Chloe's brother. Chris marries Chloe, gets a good job from her generous and rich father (Brian Cox), and continues an illicit affair with Rice. This sort of infidelity is usually the grounds for captivating cinema and Match Point proves to be no exception. While Chloe and Chris try continually to get pregnant, Chris manages to get Nola pregnant, and she sees this as an opportunity to have some leverage in her quest to get Chris to divorce Chloe. This is Woody Allen doing his best Fyodor Dostoevsky impression[2], complete with all the inner turmoil inherent in Dostoevsky's work.

That inner turmoil is the sort of thing that Jonathan Rhys-Meyers does very well. As the film ratchets up the tension, he begins to shine, but it is in the quieter moments that he struggles. His character is written to be ill at ease with his surroundings (the classic fish out of water), but he does not have the look of an actor at ease with his character, which is a fine distinction, but an important one. Emily Mortimer is excellent throughout, but Scarlett Johansson is sporadic. Great for long stretches, but then awful for moments, she seems to be relying on her powers of seduction to carry her through certain scenes. Ironically, it is those scenes where she doesn't have to seduce anyone that she is at her best, for there she must act. Otherwise she seems to be coasting along on her looks[3].

Match Point deals a lot in the business of luck, using the example in the opening shot of a tennis ball that strikes the top of the net and is free to fall in either direction, and the film seems at times to be harping on that theme. Without revealing any important plot points, let me just say this: consider that the film may be intentionally harping on the theme (in conjunction with the opening shot) as a sort of Hitchcockian McGuffin, then consider the role luck plays in the film's last half. In this regard I think Allen knows exactly what he's doing with the repeated mentions of luck. Some have suggested it is heavy-handed[4]. I respectfully disagree. To me, it is sly.

Some have said that this is a film that begins too soon, and that seems about right. Take about ten or fifteen minutes out of the beginning and we might have the film people have been talking about. That is, we might have Woody Allen's best film in ten years. As it stands, this is a very good film with moments of pure suspense on par with anything else from the class of 2005, but as seems to be the norm for all films these days, there are a great number of flaws. Not enough to ruin the film, but clearly enough to bring it out of the stratosphere of the year's elite. This is an enjoyable film, provided you aren't expecting Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), or any of the other brilliant films of Woody Allen. Try, if you see it, to let the film stand on its own two feet.

[1] Like Will Ferrell in Melinda and Melinda (2004), who played it with a limp.

[2] And for those who don't immediately recognize it, he throws a couple of paperbacks into the film, along with a comment here or there.

[3] It's kind of hard to blame her, really, but this doesn't strike me as a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination. She just hits too many wrong notes (or shots, to work in a tennis reference).

[4] I definitely can see where people might think that.


mattreed said...

1) on scarlet: in this film, she is a sexy actress, but not a good actress

2) it is worth mentioning is he cites himself at least twice in this film: first, in a tennis reference to Annie Hall, and second: the film is almost the exact film described at the end of Crimes as Misdemeanors

3) for another non-comedy, no Woody Allen character movie, see 1978's Interiors. a fine movie.

mickrect said...

At one point Chris is seen reading Crime and Punishment after having obtained his new low bugdet flat in London. I must say that the weaving on of this story was the most interesting thing about the film in general. It captured the essence of C & P without blatant robbery of the plot.

I noticed the Crimes and Misdemeanors plot as well and wondered why, for the thousandth time, that I sat through another relationship-driven romance film without the satisfaction of Woody's potential. Perhaps the joke is on me.

Note: I have not finished the film yet so don't tell me whether Chris gets caught or not.