Sophisticated Surprise

Who is this Woody Allen fellow who made this fresh and interesting delight?

Match Point is one of the most promising films I've seen by a young filmmaker in some time. While it has a certain youth and immaturity to it, it's nonetheless a taut drama and a chilling romance.

Probably the only thing working against it, besides a certain fresh-out-of-college existentialism, is the fact that the young writer/director in question is named Woody Allen, which, unfortunately, is also the name of the elderly ephebophile who has spent the last decade making mediocre comedies for the direct-to-video market.

Luckily, the Allen who made Match Point shares almost no cinematic qualities with the washed-up funnyman. Where comedian Allen is notorious for his boring cinematography, Match Point is shot in vibrant colors and with a technically sophisticated camera. Where Allen the Old has been making broad comedies with vaudeville-level humor, Match Point is serious drama, with the few humorous moments subtly integrated into the dark mood of the film.

However, Match Point does, in one place, show the youth of its creator: The overarching theme of existential guilt and redemption is redolent with a college-freshman excitement over the works of Dostoyevsky. Further, the filmmaker seems to have just entered that sad and shocking moment in life when one learns that there is no eternal reward or punishment, and that even our consciences cannot be counted on to inflict justice on the evil.

The story centers on Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a beautiful and selfish young tennis professional who has given up the pro circuit and taken a job teaching at an upper-crust London tennis club.

But his motivations for the move are less than pure. While he hobnobs with the elite, he also studies them. Listening to opera while reading the Cliff's Notes to Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, Wilton is attempting to enter high society in more ways than one.

First, he befriends Tom Hewett (played with perfect casual elitism by Matthew Goode), the wealthy son of the pleasant plutocrat Alec Hewett (Brian Cox). Then he begins dating Tom's dull and plain-looking sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer). Insinuating himself into the Hewett family's good graces, he slowly assures himself of a future of wealth and comfort.

Sadly for Mr. Wilton, he has two qualities that make this life difficult: romantic yearnings and a conscience. They also make him a proper protagonist: He's a jerk, but he feels bad about himself, so we kind of like him. All this comes to the fore when Wilton's long-term con is challenged by his meeting with Tom Hewett's beautiful and intriguing fiancée, Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson).

The relationship between Wilton and Rice really makes Match Point hum. This is helped immeasurably by the on-screen presence of both Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Scarlett Johansson. The two of them are so pretty that it's actually illegal to even talk about them in several fundamentalist Islamic republics.

You could probably make a movie where the camera just panned up and down Rhys Meyers and Johansson for three hours, and people would pay to see it, so it's almost cheating to cast them together, but the strange thing is that both are good in their parts.

Rhys Meyers' acting has an uncomfortable and unnatural manner, which is fitting considering that Wilton's life is predicated on a lie. Brian Cox, who plays the lord and father of the Hewett family, has such an extreme naturalness that watching him feels almost voyeuristic. These qualities work perfectly together: Chris Wilton enters into the Hewett's world as a deceiver, so the fact that they seem more natural than him makes sense. It also creates a neat feeling of discomfort: Watching the Hewetts is like illicitly eavesdropping on real people, which is in many ways what Wilton is doing.

That kind of cinematic sophistication in matching different acting styles is exactly what sets this film apart from works by the elder Allen ... wait a minute. I've just been informed that the Woody Allen who directed Match Point is, in fact, the same Woody Allen who made Everyone Says I Love You, Melinda and Melinda, Small Time Crooks and Celebrity. Hmm.

Well, to be fair, those weren't the worst films ever made. And in many ways, Match Point is a re-appraisal of the themes Allen worked out in Crimes and Misdemeanors. But Match Point is almost completely unlike other Woody Allen movies in the sophistication of the camera work, the thoughtful integration of acting styles and the fact that no one in the film seems to be an obvious representation of Woody Allen.

In fact, it's very hard to square Match Point with anything else Allen has done, even his "serious" films (many of which still had moments of broad comedy). It just doesn't look or feel like an Allen film; it looks and feels like the work of an interesting new talent. Maybe Allen, who recently turned 70, has entered into a second childhood, or at least a second young manhood, and, with advances in medical science on our side, we can expect another 10 or 20 films like Match Point.

I hope so. Because I have almost the exact same desire to see more movies like Match Point as I do to avoid seeing another movie where Kenneth Branagh or Jason Biggs does a Woody Allen impersonation.

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