If you’re one of those who gripe about Woody Allen tootling around Manhattan making movies with all his favorite people at all his favorite haunts and peppering the soundtrack with Gershwin and Cole Porter (and I have to admit I’ve been one of them myself from time to time), his new movie, Match Point, gives you the change of pace you’ve been asking for.
The movie is set in London rather than Manhattan. The music on the soundtrack is Verdi and Puccini rather than Gershwin and Porter. And Allen is working with a whole new group; you’ll look in vain for Wallace Shawn, Tracey Ullman or Alan Alda here, unless they’re in the background somewhere filling out the crowd as a favor to the maestro. But, for all the cosmetic changes, Match Point still takes place inside the same head that made Interiors, Manhattan and Husbands and Wives, if not Annie Hall and Bullets Over Broadway.
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers plays Chris Wilton, a poor Irish boy who has worked his way up to tennis pro at a London club. But Chris isn’t through working his way up; his social-climbing radar alarm goes off when he meets Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), ever so upper-crust and affable and come-along-to-the-opera-old-bean-and-meet-the-family.
Chris does indeed come along to the opera and meets Tom’s family: his fabulously wealthy father, Alec (Brian Cox), and mother, Eleanor (Penelope Wilton), whose genteel days are mainly spent conferring with cooks about the menu and politely guzzling gin. And there’s Tom’s sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer), who looks at Chris with the covetous gaze of a woman window-shopping at the Mr. Right store.
Chris goes along for obvious reasons: It’s summertime, and the livin’ is easy—and so is Chloe; moreover, her daddy’s rich. (Sorry; I guess it’s harder to take Gershwin out of a Woody Allen movie than I thought.) But when Chris visits the Hewetts at their country place, he meets Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), an aspiring actress and Tom’s fiancee.
For Chris it’s lust at first sight, and the forbidden nature of the fruit makes it all the sweeter. He goes through with his courtship and seduction of Chloe, but Nola’s sultry lips are never far from his mind. Then one day, a malicious dig from Eleanor, who loathes Nola like poison, sends the young woman out of the house into the rain, where she meets and has impulsive sex with Chris. Shortly thereafter, it’s all over between Nola and Tom; Chloe and Chris proceed inexorably to the altar, and Chris goes from tennis pro to up-and-comer in one of his father-in-law’s companies.
A chance meeting with Nola at the Tate Modern sets Chris’ juices flowing again, and he reacts to the pressures of his new life—trying to get Chloe pregnant while pulling his weight in Daddy’s office—by, in turn, pressuring Nola to pick up where they left off. Nola yields, and, in service to the needs of Allen’s plot, she goes in the blink of an eye from cool temptress to clinging hysteric, shouting, “If you don’t tell your wife, I will!”
If you’ve heard of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, you’ll have an inkling of where Allen is going here. In fact, if it’s not telling too much, a quick refresher with Allen’s own Crimes and Misdemeanors will tell you most of what you need to know about Match Point. Allen drops references like Hansel and Gretel do bread crumbs so we’ll recognize his vision of an amoral, indifferent universe where we’re all going to die anyway.
Allen originally set Match Point among the idle rich of Long Island, but he switched to England because the financing was easier. The change of scenery has brought his new movie the kind of attention that was denied another, far superior movie from last year, Julian Fellowes’ Separate Lies, which, like Match Point, examined adultery, betrayal, crime and punishment among the British upper class. Separate Lies offered a striking and original story and real characters. Match Point, under the posh accents, high-class acting and Mayfair locations, is the same old Allen hand-wringing about selfishness and guilt.
And, on some level, it looks suspiciously like the kind of movie Woody Allen used to make fun of 30 years ago.