(R) 4 Stars
Scarlett Johansson in 'Match Point'
Match Point, Woody Allen's latest film, is his first movie set in London. This is news since Allen's work is so closely associated with Manhattan, an island that has come to be a kind of recurring character in a career that's seen more misses than hits over the course of the past couple of decades.
In this case, change is good.
Match Point is a psychological thriller that revisits a couple of Allen's most durable themes, luck and guilt, then adds seduction to the mix to come up with a tale as wicked as vintage Hitchcock. This is ground that Allen's covered masterfully in the past, most notably in Crimes and Misdemeanors. While Match Point may not provide as many tones as that film (there's no comic relief, in other words, no Woody Allen stand-in), there's authority in its craft, and an ingenuity to its denouement that makes it a pleasure in its own right.
At first the film seems like an English version of A Place in the Sun. In this case, the young man on the make (Jonathan Rhys Meyers in what should be a starmaking role) is an itinerant tennis pro who is befriended by the rich son of a British tycoon. Soon our tennis pro has won the affections of his rich pal's sister and the admiration of his powerful dad. He's also managed to develop an at-first-sight obsession with his pal's fiancée, who is played by Scarlett Johansson, so who can blame him?
To tell you more about the intricacies of the plot would be to spoil Match Point's greatest asset. Let it suffice to say that Allen turns an old chestnut - the philandering love triangle - into a murderous dance that works in spite of its seeming predictability.
The reason may be that Allen steers clear of the sentimentality that has become an unsightly growth on the body of his recent work. In turning for inspiration to the likes of Hitchcock, he's found a rigorous template that allows for his penchant for elegance and elitist trappings, but forbids nostalgic self-indulgence.
And what a relief it is to finally see a Woody Allen film that is peopled with characters who, while decidedly urban, seem a world away from his usual crew of neurotic New Yorkers. True enough, this bunch is hyper-literate, loves art, nice clothes and good food to a fault, but placing them in London turns out to be a refreshing stroke for Allen, who seems to wear his newly acquired Anglophilia effortlessly. What's more, these characters are young and charismatic. Unlike the crowd in Melinda and Melinda, say, these characters seem more fully realized, not just an aging filmmaker's projection of what young adults should be.
At the showing I attended I heard several people exclaiming they couldn't believe this was a Woody Allen film. Their inflections suggested this came as a pleasant surprise. A dark tale told with a light touch, Match Point is a high-style entertainment hardly anyone seems able to make anymore. That it's Woody Allen delivering these goods - well, let's just say he's due.