Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Mon Jan 16, 2006 8:52 pm 
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Game, set, match: Woody scores a big one

Match Point is elegant and peculiar. There are some classic conventions that are followed, but followed in Woody Allen's own ways. It has three main elements: social climbing, adultery, and crime, all in a posh English setting that plays two arrivistes -- an American girl, a would-be actress, Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson) and an Irish boy, fading (but still young) tennis star Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) -- against a rich London family, the Hewitts. When everything falls into the boy's lap -- wealth, position, a doting wife-- and against the odds he is immediately adored by the family patriarch, Alec Hewett (Brian Cox), Chris is nonetheless compelled from first opportunity to pursue the American girl. To begin with she is taboo because she's his brother-in-law-to-be Tom Hewett's fiancée; then she is taboo because Tom has let her go and she is effectively banished from the family, which has accepted Chris as the partner for Tom's sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer). Chris's relationship with Nola stands to ruin everything, yet he can't resist it.

Allen follows conventions that are expedient rather than realistic. It all happens so quickly: Chris is hired as tennis pro at a fashionable club. After a lesson from him, the tall, patrician Tom Hewitt invites Chris to the family box at the opera. He is immediately admired by Chloe, and they begin going out together. Alec likes Chris, and approves him for Chloe, so he's given a good post at one of Alec's firms. He's soon offered a chance at, and gets, a very high position at the firm with perks, car, and driver. He and Chloe take an enormous flat overlooking the Thames paid for by Alec.

When this rapid rise is barely beginning Chris meets Nola because she's with Tom. Johannson and Rhys-Meyers are given screen-devouring closeups as in a private moment Chris comes on strong to Nola. Her warnings and demurrals only whet his appetite. As the story is smoothly and rapidly filled in, nothing really matters for the movie's progress so long as Chloe is doting, Alec nurturing, Tom debonair, and the family spreads splendid. The important thing is that Rhys-Meyers and Johannson be strong and intense, that their personalities seem vivid and their chemistry convincing. It works. The two actors have the same mocking intensity; they even have the same lips. They're attractive misfits, perfectly cast. You can believe they'd be drawn tightly together. These two people aren't dolls in a Woody Allen movie. They're alive.

Rhys-Meyers, who has played wicked or androgynous roles (but also the decent coach in Bend It Like Beckham and George Osborne in Vanity Fair), gets to be here something more like what perhaps he originally was in life: an ambitious young man of talent from a poor Irish family. Johansson, who has a bold, ironic presence, is fine in the early scenes when she is simply saying no in a way that can only inflame an eager young man, and then acquiescing with growing passion in the forbidden affair. The scenes between the two may not be the world's hottest but they sparkle. It's only later when Johansson has to be more and more needy and doting that she turns shrill and ordinary. But by that time the plot has wound so tight it may not matter.

Chris marries Chloe. Tom also marries someone more approved by his mother (same cleric, church, and shot). Chloe wants children from Chris as soon as possible, but she can't get pregnant. This effort becomes increasingly tedious and mechanical for Chris as his sexual affair heats up with Nola, newly returned to London from a spell in America after the break with Tom and many failed auditions. Though she's brazen and sassy with Chris, she wilts when she tries out for a part. It's a classic film convention that every setting is beyond nice, and so somehow Nola on return has found a terrific flat though in a rather dicey neighborhood. This is as far as we can go except to say that the final sequences include not only references to Greek tragedy but Hitchcockian cross-cutting to create suspense, and a police procedural segment that moves rapidly. Yes, there have been repeated references to the role of chance in life and somebody does read Crime and Punishment. The ending makes Chris not a little like Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley, but also has links with Dreiser. Come to think of it, the whole setup suggests Henry James. The look of the scenes is bright and beautiful. The use of Caruso arias as background music works remarkably well, and idiosyncratically, to suggest illicit ("operatic") passion, and toward the end, to provide a sense of near-hysterical tension.

Match Point isn't without flaws. Ms. Johannson's unfortunate shrillness toward the end has been mentioned. Besides that, the early section is flatly expository. We can see the wheels turning even if they're well oiled. The middle section, whose adultery becomes a bit too sweaty for this glamorous exercise in nihilism, is more tiring than farcical. The last part is thrilling, but almost seems spliced on from another more suspenseful movie. Nonetheless because of lively acting and swift pacing it all works, and works surprisingly well. Though it may be taken as serious -- Match Point is hardly a comedy -- this new Woody Allen movie, despite plot similarities to some earlier Allen oeuvres, notably Crimes and Misdemeanors, indeed is a bright new departure after a long spell of tedium from the Manhattan auteur. It may be thought-provoking, but before anything else it's engaging, exciting, and fun -- and one of the year's best American films.

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