by Bill Gallagher
There was a time when I wanted to make it a point to see every new Woody Allen movie
as soon as it was released.
Then Woody got weird.
Not weird in the “I-think-I’ll-marry-my-adopted- stepdaughter” way. But weird in the
“there’s-more-to-life-than-screwball-comedies” way. For me his breakout film was “Take
the Money and Run.” This was zany, absurd humor for a way-too-serious era. It was
1969. When he followed that with “Bananas,” I made the vow to never miss another
Woody Allen movie. After that “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex”
was a bit of a misstep, but the scene of a bum drinking Woolite after a segment about sex
with sheep made it worthwhile. And he came back from that with “Sleeper,” which
probably holds up the best of those early comedies.
Then something happened. It was called “Love and Death.” It was Woody’s homage to
Ingmar Bergman and the Marx Brothers. Here was the sign that Woody wasn’t about to
be pigeonholed. No longer would it be possible to say, “Oh, it’s a Woody Allen movie,”
and have that mean the same thing as “Oh, it’s a Marx Brothers movie.” Then came his
most successful film, “Annie Hall,” which basically swept the Academy Awards in 1978.
But he followed that triumph with the relentlessly dark “Interiors.” That one destroyed
my resolve to see every movie ever made by Woody Allen.
So we skip forward almost three decades with hits and misses along the way to his
newest movie “Match Point.” If you didn’t know going in that it had been written and
directed by Woody Allen, I defy you to identify it as a “Woody Allen movie.” That
description means nothing. And that’s not a bad thing. “Match Point” is a very good
movie regardless of whose work it is. In fact, it has the feel of an independent production
that doesn’t pander to an audience. “Match Point” depends on note-perfect acting rather
than action, and clever, believable writing rather than witless exposition. I’m not
renewing my vow to never miss another of his movies, but as far as I’m concerned he is
one of our most gifted moviemakers.
“Match Point” is a romantic tragedy set in contemporary London. It’s about the luck of
Irish tennis pro Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) who lands in the middle of a super-
rich British family, the Hewetts. Easy street beckons with his betrothal to the daughter
Chloe (Emily Mortimer). But then he’s attracted to Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), the
fiancée of the family’s son Tom (Matthew Goode). The first encounter is one of those
classic movie confrontations that has danger written all over it. Rhys-Meyers and
Johansson are two of the more attractive actors in a batch of up-and-comers these days,
and Allen makes the most of their appeal. She could be a modern day Lauren Bacall,
complete with dangling cigarette, except that as social climber from Boulder, Colo., trying to make a living as an actress in London she sometimes comes across as more of a
boozy Britney Spears.
Even a blind man can see what’s coming. Progressing from tennis instructor to an
executive with expense account and personal driver, Wilton takes full advantage of his
new connections. But he never seems to be striving. Good things happen to him without a
lot of effort on his part. He just seems to be lucky. And that’s the point of “Match Point.”
Being lucky trumps being good every time. But how long can his luck last as he acts on
his attraction to Nola, the woman engaged to the man who will someday be his brother-
in-law? Surprisingly suspenseful, considering the situation, “Match Point” works on a
number of levels because Woody Allen is as good a writer as he is a director.
Where I suspect Woody Allen has lost a lot of his fans from the ’70s is with his reliance
on what his characters say to each other. They talk...a lot. But if you give it a chance, I
believe you’ll find that the dialog here and in a number of other Allen movies (“Crimes
and Misdemeanors,” “Hannah and Her Sisters,” and even “Sweet and Lowdown,” which
features a leading lady who’s mute) is convincing, credible and crafted in such a way that
you’re connected to the characters and actually care what happens to them.
Such is the case with Chris and Chloe and Nola. It would be easy not to like these people.
Let’s face it; they are upper-class British snobs of the sort that could easily come across
as villainous caricatures. Yet, they’re almost likeable. So when the plot takes a turn to the
dark side you’ll be a bit flummoxed, to say the least. Among the most likeable of the
bunch is the father, Alec Hewett, played by Brian Cox. Here’s a disgustingly wealthy
British industrialist who dotes on his spoiled adult children and welcomes the Irish tennis
pro into his milieu without a hint of condescension.
Because of that plot turn to criminal intrigue, “Match Point” has a noir feeling to it. Just
when you thought you had Chris Wilton figured out as a good guy in a bad situation you
realize you’ve misjudged this lad. Rhys-Meyers, who just won a Golden Globe for his
role as Elvis Presley on a television special, has the same sort of brooding presence that
Joaquin Phoenix brings to the screen. And when you’ve just about had it with Nola Rice
whining about his disregard for her you’ll find yourself feeling sorry for her.
There’s no question that Woody Allen’s got his dark side. Just sit through
“Deconstructing Harry” and see if that isn’t the work of an angry man. Sometimes, as in
that movie, he goes too far. But with “Match Point” he must have realized that restraint is
in order if he’s to tell his story well. Which he does. In the screening I attended, there
were a number of times when the audience let out a collective gasp at a plot turn or let
out with a group sigh when things aren’t going well. But there wasn’t a lot of laughter.
This may turn out to be Woody Allen’s most successful movie in some time. If so, it
should once and for all destroy the notion that there’s such a thing as a “Woody Allen
movie.” Call him weird. Call him genius. Call him erratic. It’s your call. Personally, I’ll
take him one movie at a time with few preconceptions about his next movie that are based on his last movie. As a matter of fact, I’m anxious to see what he comes up with
Bill Gallagher is the News Director of AM 860–KPAM, the Talk Station, and he writes
the monthly Movie Column for BrainstormNW.
BrainstormNW - February 2006