“What did I walk into?” says a stunned Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in Woody Allen’s Match Point. Allen fans might find themselves asking the same bewildered question. With such a large oeuvre, the legendary director has certainly earned the right to diversify, but the London-based Match Point is almost Woody-less: no scenes in New York, no philosophical angst crammed into one-liners, no messy dialogue overlapping in a neurotic rush. Instead, Match Point proceeds in the measured tones of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, with each word precise and every action duly considered.
What it does share with Allen’s previous work is a plot turn lifted from his 1989 masterpiece Crimes and Misdemeanors. At times the movie is like a Gus Van Sant exercise in reverse: Instead of remaking a Hitchcock movie as if it were his, Allen remakes his own movie as if he were Hitchcock. Tennis pro Chris (Rhys-Meyers) opens the movie extolling luck over skill, and soon has the good fortune to meet privileged heir Tom (Matthew Goode). Chris is quickly swallowed into Tom’s world, marrying sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) and working for father Alec (Brian Cox, excellent in a too-small role). But Chris’ new status is threatened by his infatuation with Tom’s fiancée, Nola (the typically leaden Scarlett Johansson, who never met a line she couldn’t flatten), which escalates into an affair. A well-oiled chain of tense scenes culminates in the do-or-die moment suggested by the title. Caught in limbo between his social climb with Chloe and his passion for Nola, Chris enacts a devastating solution.
On paper, Match Point sounds dry, with characters that behave more like plot puppets than humans. But Allen’s storytelling is taut and compelling, and the connection between Chris and Nola is convincing, making the repercussions of their affair worth caring about. Allen even inserts larger themes—luck, class, and, most interestingly, the male reaction to pregnancy—into his austere drama. Compared to Misdemeanors’ weightier problems, though, those concerns feel fleeting. In that movie, the craggy face of Martin Landau grappling with God and morality was unforgettable, in a way the smooth stare of Rhys-Meyers, coldly mulling his two selfish options, can never match.
Match Point closes as it opens, with another variation on the sports adage “I’d rather be lucky than good.” The movie itself would rather be about luck and misfortune than good and evil, more concerned with the machinations of Chris’ actions than the consequences. Though engaging and at times fascinating, Match Point is ultimately little more than the sum of its plot.