Thursday, February 23, 2012

Director's Spotlight #4.22: Woody Allen's Match Point

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. February’s director is comedy legend Woody Allen.  Next up, 2005’s Match Point.
Grade: 69 (B)
After a string of poorly received films in the first half of the 2000s (truly his worst run of films), Woody Allen released Match Point, a major critical and commercial hit. The film was hailed by many as a return to form and by some as one of the director’s very best films (Allen himself holds it alongside Stardust Memories and The Purple Rose of Cairo as his favorites). It’s another dramatic film from Allen, but it’s also (*gasp*) a thriller, and furthermore, it is set entirely in Great Britain, with only one major American character. For his efforts, Allen received his fourteenth screenwriting nomination at the Oscars (and his first since- blech- Deconstructing Harry). But critics in Britain were less kind, pointing out issues with the “British” dialogue and characters. Who was right?
Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) is a former tennis-pro from Ireland now working as an instructor in London. He and one of his wealthy students, Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), become friends- they share passion for opera and literature. Tom introduces Chris to his parents Alec and Eleanor (Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton) and his sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer), who instantly takes a liking to Chris. Chloe and Chris start dating and eventually marry, and Alec gives Chris a comfy job in his firm. Chris, however, is attracted to Tom’s American actress fiancĂ©e Nola (Scarlett Johansson), whose job Eleanor disapproves of. The two have a brief fling before Nola and Tom split up, but when they reconnect some time later they strike up a passionate affair. When Nola becomes pregnant with Chris’ child, the relationship threatens to bring down Chris’ comfortable existence, for which he finds he’s willing to go to drastic measures.
Allen’s clearest influence here is Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (he tips it off by having Chris read the book), but the film’s thriller framework and portrayals of class recall the works of Roman Polanski (most notable Knife in the Water and Repulsion). It’s the clearest portrayal of Allen’s fascination of class and luck. Allen’s handling of these issues, however, is a bit shaky- Match Point shares the tendencies of his lousiest dramatic features to explain away every metaphor and struggle within the film. The tennis metaphor of when a ball hits a net and could go on either side is handled with too heavy a hand, the film’s up-front discussions of class are a bit superficial, and Allen constantly has characters repeat the importance of luck over and over again. The script is incredibly repetitive, with sequences of Chris and Nola arguing over what to do about their situation ad nauseam (really, Woody, one or two would do), and the film’s strong resemblance to Crimes and Misdemeanors serves of a reminder of an earlier, better Woody Allen film that explored the subject of guilt and morality much more thoroughly.
Many British critics complained about Allen’s portrayal of upper-class Londoners- their complains were appropriate. Goode, Cox, Wilton and Mortimer are all good actors, but their characters are akin to the dull, stuffy, passionless WASPs of Woody Allen’s weakest dramas (see: Ian Holm in Another Woman). There’s no life to any of them, best showcased in their reserved reactions to every dramatic scene in the film. Worse still, Allen’s British-English dialogue is stiff and often tin-eared (Goode gets some real honkers- “chop chop!”, “yum yum!”). It doesn’t serve the two main characters well to have everyone around them without any real drive, and it often makes for tedious watching.
Rhys-Meyers fares a bit better as Chris, given that his character has real wants and needs. Trouble is that Rhys-Meyers isn’t an actor with a particularly wide range (he’s best as an androgynous rock star in Velvet Goldmine), and when it comes to the character’s heated decision in the final act of the film, the actor isn’t up to task to play a man being pulled from all sides; his performance goes from “adequate” to “inadequate” to “adequate” again throughout the film. Rhys-Meyers is ultimately a bit of a blank in the role, and given the number of great British actors working in the early-2000s (Christian Bale, Jude Law, Ewan McGregor, Cilian Murphy, Paul Bettany…), it’s hard not to imagine what one of them might have done with the role.
Given Allen’s problems with writing British characters, it’s a bit of a godsend that Kate Winslet had to drop out of the role of Nola (it would have been terrible watching one of the finest actresses alive saddled with bad “British” dialogue), forcing Allen to cast the American Johansson. The actress received raves for her performance, and it’s easy to see why- she’s the most passionate and dynamic character in the film, the only one who has any life or vitality to her. She’s actually active and has wants and desires and pursues them. Allen gives her too many scenes near the end where she has to yell at Rhys-Meyers about their situation, which makes the character a bit nagging rather than someone with a legitimate point-of-view, and the sex scenes between Johansson and Rhys-Meyers sometimes borders on silly soft-core without the nudity. In the end, however, Johansson’s performance is good enough to disguise that she’s essentially reprising Anjelica Huston’s role in Crimes and Misdemeanors (albeit in an expanded form).
Yes, Allen’s script is more than a little shaky, his understanding of British idioms poor, and his film ultimately way longer than it needs to be (at over two hours, it’s his longest film). What saves Match Point from its weak writing is Allen’s directing, which is often magnificent. Allen the writer might not have a feel for London, but Allen the director is reenergized after spending way too much time in New York. The filmmaking has a certain elegance and grace to it that carries over from Sweet and Lowdown, and that lightness of touch overcomes Allen’s script in the final sequences.
SPOILERS AHEAD: In a repeat of Martin Landau’s story in Crimes and Misdemeanors, Rhys-Meyers decides to kill Johansson in order to preserve his comfy living. The film transforms into an elegant, gripping thriller as Rhys-Meyers takes a shotgun from his father-in-law’s home, kills the kindly old lady who lives next door to Johansson, and steals the old woman’s jewelry and prescription pills to make it look like a drugs related robbery-homicide. He then shoots Johansson as she comes home from work and meets his wife at a theatre; in a wonderful bit of editing, the film cuts from the safety of the theatre audience to the police investigation of the murder just as the musical The Woman in White is about to start. Rhys-Meyers throws the old woman’s jewelry over a bridge, but in a throwback to the “tennis ball hits the net” scene, the woman’s wedding ring hits a rail and falls back onto the pavement. The film might have been better had Allen chosen to end it there and then, leaving the audience to guess whether Rhys-Meyers’ was lucky or not.
The film continues, however, resolving the story with a similar “drug addict/drifter gets the blame” ending. Allen stumbles a bit with another poorly conceived portrayal of British life (the police officers are pretty goofy) and a rather stupid dream sequence in which Rhys-Meyers justifies his choices to the ghosts of Johansson and the old woman. Mostly, though, Match Point shows a revitalized Allen exploring new territory for the first time in ages. It isn’t the masterpiece it was held up to be, but it’s a good Woody Allen movie after a string of uninspired or hateful works, and that’s plenty good enough.

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