Match Point (United States/United Kingdom, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In my review of Woody Allen's previous misfire, Melinda and Melinda, I wrote the following: "Lately, Allen's films have sunk into a state of heightened mediocrity - sporadically entertaining, but often disappointing, at least for those clinging to the hope that Allen will return to 'form.' I no longer expect great things from a Woody Allen movie…" Indeed, it has been over a decade since Allen has produced a memorable motion picture. Match Point puts an end to the drought, and does so in an impressive and unexpected fashion. Not only could one argue that this is the best "serious" work the director has ever attempted, but it's presented in a way that even the most seasoned Allen fan will have difficulty recognizing the iconic filmmaker's fingerprints.

Some of the differences are immediately evident: Allen does not appear on-screen, the setting has been shifted from New York to London, and the cast and crew are predominantly British. Other aspects, although no less important, are more subtle. Allen's usual "voice" is absent. Match Point does not deal with a neurotic character and there are no May/December romances. The comedy is minimal. This is a character piece that develops into a slow burn thriller. And Allen proves himself to be a master of misdirection. I thought I knew how Match Point was going to end; I was wrong.

Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) is a retired pro tennis player who has signed on to be a tennis instructor at a posh British club. One of his first clients is Tom Hewitt (Matthew Goode), an affable fellow who invites Chris out for a night at the Opera when he discovers that he and Chris share some of the same tastes (opera, classic novels, etc.). There, Chris meets Tom's family: his father, Alec (Brian Cox); his mother, Eleanor (Penelope Wilton); and his sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer). Chris and Chloe begin seeing each other, and it's not long before Chloe falls for the dashing athlete. Chris' feelings are more reserved - he feels affection for Chloe, but no great passion, but he recognizes the kind of stepping stone that a liaison with the Hewitt family could represent. Enter Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), Tom's headstrong American fiancée. Chris is immediately smitten. Even as he woos Chloe with the intention of marrying her, he becomes obsessed with Nola. And, as with any romantic house of cards, this one seems destined to collapse spectacularly.

Without giving away plot details that are best discovered by the individual viewer, I can't say much about the film's final act, except to note that it's much different from what comes before it, and that's what elevates Match Point from a solid, character-based story to a near-masterpiece. No Allen movie since Crimes and Misdemeanors (16 years ago) has left as lasting an impression. In an era when the filmmaker has churned out one disposable motion picture after another, it's a welcome surprise to find a gem like Match Point lurking in multiplexes.

This is Chris' story, and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (Bend It Like Beckham) is perfectly suited to play the part. Although there are less-than-laudable aspects to his character, Meyers plays Chris with sincerity. He's a flawed, but not evil, individual. There's a little of Stephen Glass (Shattered Glass) in him. He's a sycophant social climber who's not beyond using a little groveling to ingratiate himself with someone who advance his opportunities. And he has a genuine, almost pathological need to be liked. Meyers shows no difficulty handling the demands of this complex character.

Emily Mortimer and Scarlett Johansson show different faces of womankind. Mortimer's Chloe is the nurturing, supportive female: one who takes her husband's denial of an affair at face value and whose primary goal in marriage is to give her parents grandchildren. It's a role that Mortimer slides into without difficulty. Johansson, on the other hand, is simultaneously self-sufficient and needy. The qualities that attract Chris to her are the ones that make the potential of a long-term relationship harrowing. This gives Johansson an opportunity to show a little of the femme fatale. Experienced British thespians Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton have supporting roles as the matriarch and patriarch of the Hewitt clan.

One of the most keenly observed elements of Match Point is the way in which it shows how infidelity can erode a marriage. Most movies that delve into this subject do it in a heavy-handed, melodramatic fashion. Allen's approach is quieter and has the ring of truth. We are taken through the stages of the affair: its passionate beginnings, the slide into routine, and the growing gap between what's real and what the characters want. For Nola, it becomes a question of whether Chris will leave his wife. For Chris, it becomes a question of whether he can give up his comfortable lifestyle for a woman who makes him feel, but may be unstable.

Had Match Point simply been about the Chris/Nola/Chloe triangle and the way the deceptions and willful ignorance impacts all three lives, it would have been a compelling motion picture. But Allen takes things to the next level, and that's what makes Match Point memorable. For the first time in a long time, we understand why Allen is considered a master. If this is what filming in London does for him, maybe he should move there permanently.

Match Point (United States/United Kingdom, 2005)

Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer, Matthew Goode, Brian Cox, Penelope Wilton
Screenplay: Woody Allen
Cinematography: Remi Adefarasin
U.S. Distributor: Dreamworks
Ranked #6 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2005
Run Time: 2:04
U.S. Release Date: 2005-12-28
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1