Tuesday, January 10, 2006

American sass meets British class in deadly "Match Point"


directed by Woody Allen
starring Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer, Brian Cox, Matthew Goode

I’ve been trying to pinpoint why I don’t care much for “Match Point.” Superficially, at least, it’s a well-made film, sharply cut and refreshingly free of the solipsistic self-indulgence that's plagued Woody Allen’s more recent work. A thriller that doubles as a study of sexual obsession and social class, it gradually tightens its grip on the audience with an almost Hitchcockian flair, and along the way offers some fairly acute observations on the insulating effect of extreme wealth and privilege.

It’s also vaguely misogynistic, soulless, and, in the end, pointless.

If you’ve seen the trailers, you already know most of the story. “Match Point” recounts the rise of Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a tennis pro who, at the movie’s outset, quits touring to take on a gig at an exclusive tennis club in London. Right from the get-go, it’s obvious that Chris aspires to a higher station than that reflected in his tiny flat or his working-class background. So we’re to infer, anyway, from the fact that he reads Dostoyevsky (with a study guide) and listens to opera—whether for self-improvement or for genuine pleasure, it’s less clear, but probably the former. His apparent appreciation for the finer things in life soon gains him the friendship of one of his pupils, a toff by the name of Tom Hewett (an ultra-debonair Matthew Goode), and Tom’s sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer, looking rather adorably gazelle-like). Chloe takes a fancy to Chris and, to use an old-fashioned phrase, sets her cap at him. Before long, Chris becomes a regular fixture at the Hewetts’ palatial digs, and a rising star in Papa Hewitt (Brian Cox)’s company, all thanks to his role as Chloe’s intended.

But no Paradise would be complete without its forbidden fruit, and Chris finds his in the overripe shape of Nola (Scarlett Johansson), Tom’s fiancée. Like Chris, Nola is unabashedly on the make; her road to the top, however, seems far less secure. An American actress whose presence in London is never really explained, she has only a commercial or two to her credit, and despite (or perhaps because of) her tremendous sex appeal, she seems much less adept than Chris at winning the good graces of her in-laws-to-be. As a consequence, perhaps, her fortunes start to fall at about the same time Chris’s begin to skyrocket, and she eventually drops out of the Hewett orbit altogether. Nonetheless, before she disappears, and when she ultimately resurfaces, Chris pursues her with an intensity that doesn’t prevent him from meanwhile successfully wooing and marrying the mercifully oblivious Chloe. Whatever you may think of the man’s morals, you have to hand it to him for the dexterity with which he plays his double game; he’d be hell at a poker table. Still, as his fling with Nola balloons into a full-blown affair, it becomes increasingly apparent that the situation is headed for a crisis. He can’t keep juggling it all without dropping something. Or can he? Cue double-twist ending, 3.0 degree difficulty.

Part of the power of “Match Point” derives from its ability to show just how torn its main character is between his attraction to Nola and his equally great attraction to his cushy new lifestyle. And it succeeds, to a point. Johansson vamps a little too hard as the heavy-lidded sexpot, but there’s no denying her allure. And Allen seems almost as in love with the Hewetts’ wealth as Chris is, from the Hewetts’ opera box to the floor-to-ceiling window views of the Thames from Chris and Chloe’s marital apartment. When Chris stands in very real danger of losing it all, we feel his pain.

Or at least, we’re supposed to. I didn’t so much, although Rhys-Meyers is rather good as the upwardly agile Chris. I’ve never been able to decide whether I find him handsome or alien-looking, and this film allows him to be effectively both at once. For Chris is, in a sense, an intruding alien, his watchful poise and careful diction a studied contrast to the easy, relaxed demeanors and impossibly posh inflections of Tom and Chloe. When his near-robotic composure does break down—at sensual moments, yes, but also in the very fine last scene of the movie—it’s surprisingly effective. It would be, anyway, if his motives weren’t the oldest ones in the world: the motives of the cad who wants to have his cake and eat it, too.

Call me a fusty moralist. Perhaps I am; what of it? “Match Point” plays with the idea that to be lucky is more important than to be good, but its final word on that not-exactly-earthshattering concept falls flat in a silly third-act coda involving two police detectives straight out of a second-rate BBC skit. And whether Chris turned out to be sufficiently lucky began to matter less to me than whether Nola would *ever* catch a break, that is, cease to be unlucky.

For there’s little doubt that Chris and Nola are set up to be as much adversaries as lovers, and I would find the movie a bit more interesting if the playing field weren’t so obviously tilted. Actually, it’s not as obvious at the beginning: when they first meet and size each other up, the attraction is immediately palpable, as is the sense that they are opponents in a high-stakes match. Nola, at this stage, seems well equipped to rise to the challenge, though even then there are some heavy-handed signs that Chris already has the advantage over her. (They meet over table tennis, for crying out loud.) But as the movie reaches boiling point, she devolves from coy, knowing siren into stupid, completely undesirable harpy—at least, seen through Chris’s eyes. Sure, we knew she was an unstable alcoholic, and a fool for getting involved with a married man, but for her to turn into a raving wreck feels unconvincing...and so very “Fatal Attraction." I don’t know what it says that the only American character in the story is also the least sympathetically treated. Not that the other women in the film fare much better: both Chloe and her mother come across as pure products of their class, Chloe by turns stifling and conveniently dimwitted, her mother a snob who gets nasty when she’s drunk because, unlike Nola, she can afford to.

With no opponents of comparable mettle, Chris is the only character the audience can really root for—and that’s something I simply couldn’t do. Even then, I suppose I might be more favorably disposed towards “Match Point” if it were original in its subversiveness—but it isn’t. Notwithstanding the high-culture polish and self-conscious counterpoints provided by the operatic interludes and the references to “Crime and Punishment,” the film doesn’t seem to have all that much to say about luck, skill, conventional moral expectations, and the unconscious allure of the leisured class that “The Talented Mr. Ripley” didn’t say better and more incisively. (And with better dialogue: what “Match Point” lacks in Allen’s self-absorption it also lacks in wit, and a distressingly high percentage of the lines—clearly written to advance the plot rather than to elicit a laugh—are real clunkers.) “Match Point” is watchable, no doubt about it. But it isn’t much more than that.


Capsule review:


directed by Lasse Hallström
starring Heath Ledger, Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons, Oliver Platt, Lena Olin

A thoroughly absurd, wildly overplotted, and unexpectedly delightful soufflé of a movie—worth watching if for no other reason than Heath Ledger’s deft, dashing turn as the legendary lothario, which serves as a perfect counterpoint to his equally remarkable performance as the tormented Ennis del Mar in “Brokeback Mountain.” I think the two films should be featured as a double bill: seen back-to-back, each highlights the impressiveness of his achievement in the other. Indeed, I almost prefer the “Casanova” performance simply because he's clearly having so much fun with the role. The rest of the cast is suitably entertaining, including Jeremy Irons playing a humorless inquisitor in a dreadful orange hairpiece, Omid Djalili deadpanning it as Ledger’s Sancho Panza, Oliver Platt rather painfully sacrificing all semblance of dignity in the name of opera-bouffe style comedy, and, of course, current It-Girl Sienna Miller, who almost lends credibility to the risible chick-lit fantasy that Casanova’s heart could be captured by a frizzy-haired bluestocking whose pen was only slightly mightier than her sword...and no, you freaky Freudians, I mean nothing sinister by that cliché. For, despite some risqué innuendo that makes for some over-the-top hilarity, “Casanova” is at heart a rather sweetly sentimental film—sweeter than Hallström’s bland “Chocolat,” and an essentially innocent, rather than guilty, pleasure. Call me crazy, but I’ll take “Casanova” any day over movies of purportedly greater “substance” that fail to deliver one-quarter of its silly, rollicking fun.



Blogger echan said...

Wow, that's an extremely harsh grade. I'm curious what your review would say. My grade for Allen's new flick: B+.

1:24 PM  
Blogger echan said...

Regarding your Heath Ledger - double bill remark, I saw a mom-and-pop movie theatre is Santa Cruz advertising that very thing, "Heath Ledger / in / Brokeback Mountain / Casanova"

12:44 PM  

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