"Knight Thoughts" -- exclusive web content
Woody Allen with a British Accent:
1-6-06 "Knight Thoughts" web exclusive
by Richard Knight, Jr.
New York's most famous film director finds vitality in his new surroundings "across the pond" with this tricky
psychological drama that stars Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Scarlett Johansson caught up in an illicit affair
Since Match Point first hit the festival circuit last fall it's been receiving raves. It's been hailed as the Second Coming of Woody Allen
-- a return to form and it is -- of sorts. I don't want to get all "sticky moon candy" (to borrow a phrase that I oft repeat coined by
Pauline Kael) about Allen's new movie, however. I think it is a very good movie -- for a Woody Allen movie. But signed by another
director, I don't think the film would be receiving the attention or over abundance of praise that's being heaped upon it. I also think
audiences should be warned that though Match Point is indeed an interesting character study and a wisp of a psychological thriller, it's
not a masterpiece and shouldn't suffer from the unfair hosannas.
At the outset of the film (shot and set in London and the surrounding English countryside) tennis pro Chris Wilton (the ravishing
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) has given up the tournament circuit for lessons at a fancy private club. One of his first clients is handsome,
decidedly upper crust Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode). The two hit it off and before you can say "Barry Lyndon" Chris is heavily
involved with Tom's sister, the pretty, polite but eventually boring Chloe (Emily Mortimer in a nicely nuanced performance). Marriage
and a place in the family business is assured and for Chris, whose scraped his way up from a poor Irish background, this is like
winning the Darby and then some. Then he has the misfortune (or fortune -- depending on your read) to fall hard for Tom's
luscious American girlfriend, Nola (Scarlett Johansson). Eventually Tom and Nola break it off but not before she and Chris have had
a Brief Encounter (outside in the rain in a field -- when you gotta have it, you gotta have it).
Circumstances, of course, will bring Nola back into Chris' life and here's where the psychological thriller stuff comes in and the film
begins to venture into Theodore Dreiser territory. Actually, upon closer examination, Match Point seems almost a remake of A Place in
the Sun -- with the roles of the two women reversed. Here, it's the sexy Elizabeth Taylor character who turns into the drag and must
be dealt with while the nagging Shelley Winters victim becomes the wife/safe harbor.
Rhys-Meyers is devlishly good as the soulless rake who's not about to give up his creature comforts for the daydreams of an aging
blonde. You see him shifting between light and dark aspects of the character with lightning ease and yet he doesn't elicit sympathy
or revulsion. As Allen has written him (and Nola as well), Chris isn't a reflective man. Unlike the character that Martin Landau played
in Crimes and Misdemeanors, one doesn't imagine Chris having much regret over the violent action he takes to protect his newfound
way of life. The Landau character, we vividly saw, would be haunted by his crimes. Chris most definitely will not. Rhys-Meyers, with
his impossibly beautiful countenance and pouty lips is perfect casting for the role (he'd make an absolutely sensational Dorian Gray)
but I had problems with Johansson as the object of his ardor. As an actress, she never quite seems to be totally there. Her
passivity has served her well in roles that have explicitly called for that -- in Ghost World, The Girl With a Pearl Earring, and especially
Lost In Translation.
But in The Island and here, where she is meant to be bewitching, dazzling, an elusive, unattainable Holly Golightly, she falls short of
the mark. There's also nothing of the crazy intensity in Johansson's character that one saw in Alex Forrest -- the Glenn Close
temptress of Fatal Attraction -- and I had trouble believing the depth of the affair between Chris and Nola. It seemed to me that
Chris was having an affair with nothing more than a blonde, American version of his wife. Part of that is due to Allen's lazy writing
and part to Johansson's lack of electricity. He's a director that relies heavily on his casting and when he makes good choices the
results are sublime (think no further than Judy Davis in Husbands & Wives, Dianne Wiest in Bullets Over Broadway and Geraldine Page
in Interiors). When they're off, his flawed writing becomes apparent.
But the weak writing for Johansson's character doesn't slow down the film and Match Point, like the best of Allen, zips right along.
Scenes quickly build, make their point and move quickly to the next. Of course, no one fights in real life like the people in Allen's
movies -- they're almost so predictable they're like a parody -- but he keeps these to a minimum. The "intellectual" discussions
and life reflections as well. "Serious" Woody Allen is not nearly as entertaining as "funny" Woody Allen for me but this is certainly a
nice diverting entertainment until the next Manhattan Murder Mystery or Bullets Over Broadway comes along.