'Match': Well Served

Scarlett Johansson and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers play lovers treading dangerous waters in
Scarlett Johansson and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers play lovers treading dangerous waters in "Match Point," Woody Allen's return to form. (By Clive Coote -- Dreamworks Via Reuters)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 6, 2006

"Match Point" starts out with a blistering ace -- an opening scene that becomes a haunting metaphor for the movie.

As a yellow tennis ball flies back and forth over a net, a narrator speaks about luck and how it decides our fate, no matter how hard we try to create our destiny. At that moment, the ball strikes the top of the net and hangs tantalizingly in the air.

"For a split second," continues the narrator, "it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck it goes forward and you win. Or maybe it doesn't and you lose."

The voice belongs to Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a tennis player who has given up the pro circuit for the easier game of teaching the rich and untalented. And the lucky bounce he'll soon be praying for will have deeper consequences than victory or loss on a grass court.

When was the last time we routinely looked forward to Woody Allen's films? Who was president? "Match Point" may not herald a Woody renaissance, but it's a terrific surprise for those who have come to greet his annual output with knowing groans. A sort of romance noir -- spruced up in pressed white linens -- this British-made film, which also stars Scarlett Johansson, is elegant, uncompromising and oh-so- veddy nasty. But the nastiness shouldn't come as a surprise to Allen devotees. Strip away the jokes in his work -- from his movies to his brilliant nightclub routines of the early 1960s -- and you'll see nothing but abject misery. Most of the time, we're too busy laughing to mind the misanthropic underpinnings.

But for some passing chuckles, there's no humor in "Match Point." It knuckles down instead to its dark, resolute task like an executioner with delicate fingers. Its characters march to the drumbeat of Greek tragedy, film noir and opera, and you can almost hear the murderous musings of Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov, who puts himself beyond morality and the law.

When one of Chris's students -- rich, easygoing Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode) -- invites him to the opera, a new world opens before him. A prince of high society, Tom introduces Chris to his wealthy parents, Alec (Brian Cox) and Eleanor (Penelope Wilton), who take a strong liking to him, and to his sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer), who is clearly smitten with the affable newcomer.

The middle-class lad from Ireland can hardly believe his fortune. He jumps right in. But no sooner has Chris started dating Chloe than he meets Nola (Johansson), Tom's sultry fiancee. An aspiring actress from Colorado, she's a poor outsider, too. Like Chris, she's all too aware of their precarious existential positions: Beholden to the Hewetts, they are powerless to do anything but play ball. So their passionate attraction to each other presents quite a problem.

"You're going to do very well," Nola tells Chris, "unless you blow it."

If ever there were a case to be made for an artist finding inspiration abroad, Allen's first foray out of New York makes a powerful argument. In recent years, maybe even decades, Allen's working methods -- one film a year, always shot in or around Manhattan -- have often yielded staid, repetitive hackwork.

"Match Point," shot in London and made entirely with British financing, crew and actors (with the exception of Johansson and Irish-born Rhys-Meyers), feels like the shedding of a crackly skin. It's Allen's most assured film since 1994's "Bullets Over Broadway" and, before that, 1989's "Crimes and Misdemeanors," which shares many of its mordant themes. (Allen is so pleased with his experience in England, he already has completed his next film there, "Scoop," starring Johansson.)

For all his masterly writing and direction here, Allen's most significant achievement may have been the casting of Johansson and Rhys-Meyers. In such movies as "Ghost World," "Lost in Translation" and "Girl With a Pearl Earring," Johansson established herself as a breakout ingenue. But in "Match Point," she has clearly evolved into an authentic star. She is, quite simply, a bombshell, and not just because she's curvier than a tightly zipped bag of tennis balls. She has a presence that is, at times, pure Marilyn (there, I said it). It's no stretch to imagine Chris Wilton casting caution to the winds -- or contemplating doing so -- for a few stolen moments with her.

Rhys-Meyers, whose Elvis Presley in the 2005 miniseries "Elvis" was the most thrilling interpretation of the King I have seen, is a lurking opportunist whose glittery, feminine eyes suggest a cat on the prowl for bigger and better dishes of cream. He's the worst in all of us, yet we are bound to him. We wish we weren't, given the trouble he's about to put us through. When he sees Nola, he seems to belong to her instantly, the way all film noir antiheroes "belong" to their femmes fatales. Is it bad luck, good luck or Chris's free will that draws them together? Or is it simply the irresistible attraction of two pairs of pneumatic lips to each other? Whatever the forces, they still have the power to choose good over bad. Despite its relentless pessimism and its concessions to the vagaries of chance, "Match Point" reminds us that we serve our own game.

Match Point (124 minutes, at area theaters ) is rated R for some sexuality.

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