Woody Allen returns to one of his favorite themes–infidelity–in “Match Point” (do you suppose it might carry some personal significance for him?), but with a change of accent. The picture is set not in his usual upper-crust New York City haunts, but in those of London instead. The dialogue is thus spoken not in Americanese but in crisp British tones. And that’s not all. One of the plot devices has to do with the characters’ devotion to opera, and the tale of lust and longing is accompanied musically by snippets of Italian arias rather than the jazzy stuff he ordinarily prefers. (He is true to form, however, in preferring scratchy old recordings–mostly those of Caruso–to more modern ones.)
As to the plot, you might think of it as “A Place on the Courts”–a recasting of George Stevens’ “A Place in the Sun” with a tennis motif. Middle-grade ex-pro Chris Walton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), tired of the circuit grind, takes a job as resident coach at a posh club, where he’s introduced to Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), a well-heeled aristocratic type with whom he shares a fondness for opera. It’s not long before Tom has invited Chris into the family circle despite the demonstrable class difference. Father Alec (Brian Cox) and mother Eleanor (Penelope Wilton) like Chris, but it’s especially plain-Jane sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) who takes a shine to him, and soon they’re engaged. But another woman has already caught the young coach’s eye–Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), a rather crudely sexual American would-be actress who’s Tom’s fiancee (much to the dismay of his parents), and they share a fling. Nola is soon dispatched back to the New World, however, while Tom is linked with a more suitable match, and Chris and Chloe wed as well; but when Nola returns to England, the sparks between her and Chris rekindle at an even higher level, and Chris is torn between acceding to his lover’s demands that he dump his wife for her (though that would mean kissing the lucrative, high-profile job arranged for him by Mr. Hewett goodbye, too, along with the life to which he’s now become accustomed) and finding some way of ridding himself of his troublesome mistress (who just happens to be pregnant).
Allen has traversed some of this path before, of course, in the Martin Landau-Claire Bloom-Anjelica Huston triangle of 1989’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” And it doesn’t carry anywhere near the same punch this time around. One reason is that in terms of the point it’s trying to make, “Match Point” is far less ambitious than the earlier picture. In “Crimes,” he was trying to get at the question of whether a person’s moral decision-making depended on a belief in a judgmental God–not a new issue, perhaps, but a weighty one. Here issues of right and wrong are pretty much jettisoned in favor of the simple notion that outcomes–whether or not one will be punished for heinous deeds–are merely a matter of luck; no larger moral or ethical context exists beyond individual feelings of desire and guilt. Nor is the central character as powerful, or as well played. Landau’s Dr. Rosenthal was a driven, troubled man, and Landau played him with a remarkable combination of fierceness and poise; Chris, on the other hand, is a bland charmer–it’s impossible to say whether he’s intended to be an unscrupulous schemer or merely a hapless fellow dragged in over his head by circumstances–and Rhys-Meyers never endows him with much beyond a generalized boyishness. Allen’s two pictures do share, however, one element: a really unpleasant view of the mistress. In both “Crimes” and “Point,” the other woman is portrayed as little more than an irritant, and a neurotic and dangerously unstable one at that; there isn’t much shading to her–these are characters with whom Allen is apparently unable to sympathize at all. And in this instance even more than the last, the flaw in the writing is exacerbated by the fact that the role is very badly played. Johansson seems all empty shrewish mannerism, shouting and pouting throughout, and eventually she becomes as tiresome to us as she does to both Tom and Chris. By contrast Mortimer makes a convincing wallflower type, and Goode is fine as a sort of Oscar Wilde sophisticate in modern dress. Cox and Wilton, meanwhile, give their wealthy couple some real personality (in many ways they’re more interesting than the younger quartet).
As usual with Allen’s movies, the purely physical aspects of “Match Point” are fine without being outstanding. One peculiar element, however, involves the periodic scenes in which characters attend operatic performances: the singers seem always to be accompanied by solo piano rather than the expected full orchestra. Is there any particular dramatic point to this, or is it merely a sign of budgetary constraints? Whatever the reason, it’s an appropriate musical metaphor for the fact that as a whole the movie comes across as a bit thin, too. To adopt the terminology the script uses in its opening explanation of luck on the court, while not as awful as some of Allen’s flubs, this film is one of those instances in which the cinematic ball doesn’t quite make it over the net.