MOVIE REVIEW- 'Match Point': Is Woody Allen's magic back?


Woody Allen must watch a lot of Turner Classic Movies, the network that feted his 70th birthday with a documentary and quintuple filmathon. Match Point, widely hailed as the Woodman's return to form, is about a tennis pro who has a wife and a mistress (Strangers on a Train), an adulterous situation that could either go toward Fatal Attraction or A Place in the Sun.

Although Woody has turned out a few decent pictures in the last decade or so, the consensus is that the last one worthy of his legacy is Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), or maybe Bullets over Broadway (1994). He's finally paid attention to the critics who have been saying he needs to do something besides Manhattan-set comedies.

Match Point takes place in England. It's an erotic thriller with little in the way of comic relief, though it's not as heavy as Allen's Ingmar Bergman-inspired dramas; and while the women (Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer) are in the age bracket the filmmaker prefers, so are the men in their lives (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Matthew Goode). There are no sexagenarian neurotic Jews drooling over them - not in front of the camera anyway.

Chris Wilton (Rhys Meyers) is the tennis pro, "a poor boy from Ireland come to London." Nola Rice (Johansson) is "just a starving actress from Boulder, Colorado." Both attract the romantic attention of the children of the Hewetts, Alec (Brian Cox) and Eleanor (Penelope Wilton). Mrs. Hewett is more concerned than her husband, who came to his millions through hard work, about the class of the people their children marry.

Having won the heart of Chloe (Mortimer), Chris is able to win over her mother as well; but an actress– and an American yet!– is too much, however infatuated Tom (Goode) may be with her.

The practical Nola tells Chris in their first intimate talk, "You can do very well for yourself unless you blow it... by making a pass at me." Of course he makes a pass, but he doesn't blow it– at least not right away. Even before Chris marries Chloe her father brings him into his company as a junior executive on the fast track for advancement.

After their first time together, Nola tries to be practical but Chris won't hear of it. On the one hand he has a beautiful, loving wife and financial security; on the other hand is intense passion. Being a man, he's willing to settle for both.

Tom finally dumps Nola and marries another woman who's already pregnant, while Chloe, who desperately wants three children, in unable to conceive. Nola, however, is more fertile. She makes Chris' delicate juggling act ever more precarious. As realistic as she is about most things, Nola can't seem to grasp that acting and Chris are both dead ends for her.

Acting is no dead end for Johansson, whose supporting performance could net her a first Oscar sooner rather than later. She's only 21 and the Academy has already passed up a few chances to honor her with nominations.

Allen's script manages a smooth flow despite several months often passing between scenes. This was problematic a year ago in Closer, which was obviously based on a play where you could look at a program to keep track of the passage of time.

The only negative thing about Match Point is the use of operatic arias, many of them ancient Caruso recordings, for a score. They add an elitist layer to what should be a popular entertainment and the low fidelity (pun intended) isn't especially pleasant to listen to, even for opera lovers. The use of a lengthy dramatic aria to underscore a lengthy dramatic scene totally misfires. At least we don't have to hear the antediluvian pop songs the heroines are named for.

So Allen's better with jazz than classical, but Match Point reminds us he can be as good with drama as comedy, and what better way to begin one's eighth decade than trying something new successfully?