Match Point

There are moments in a match when a ball hits the top of the net, and for a split second it can either go forward, or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward. You win. Maybe it doesn’t, and you lose.

Former tennis pro Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) knows luck as much as skill is needed to win. It all depends on which side of the net your ball falls, and after tiring of the circuit, Chris quits touring and starts teaching tennis at a swanky London Country Club.

There’s something mind numbing about teaching tennis to amateurs, so Chris already has plans to escape his bill-paying existence when he meets Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), the handsome son of a rich local family. The two become instant friends, and an invitation to join his family at the opera introduces Chris to Tom’s kindhearted sister Chloe (a glowing Emily Mortimer). The attraction between Chris and Chloe is apparent yet apprehensive, a situation which demands Chris spend more time with the family.

While attending a party at the country home of Chloe and Tom’s parents (Brian Cox, Penelope Wilton), Chris meets Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson, cold and calculated), an American actress engaged to Tom. Chris is smitten by Nola’s beauty, but marries Chloe to help secure his financial future. Like an intense showdown between two expert players, writer-director Woody Allen pits upper and lower class values against each other, creating a match of morals and wits which emerge as one of the filmmakers best works in years.

After leaving New York for London, Allen seems invigorated, as if he’s dumped an old girlfriend who keeps saying the same thing over and over again. Even though Allen has been down this dark path before (Crimes & Misdemeanors, Interiors), Match Point feels fresh and new. It’s a welcome change of pace, a drawing room drama about class, murder, tennis, and luck. Except for Johansson, Match Point is decidedly British, featuring a strong, refined cast who give weight to Allen’s words. While the director constantly tips his hat with on-screen references to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Allen’s film has something more sinister on its mind.

He asks us to become unwitting accomplices in an unspeakable act which plays out in the most unexpected way. First we are appalled that the character in question would even consider taking such an easy way out, but as the match continues, we understand the character isn’t taking the easy way out, the character is taking the only way out. Collateral damage be damned, Allen is such a master filmmaker we not only accept the outcome, but actually cross our fingers that luck plays out in the character’s favor.

The trick is creating a menage of characters who share equal culpability, either as antagonists or protagonists. Chris would be able to deflect Nola’s beauty if Chloe were capable of giving him what he so desperately needs: an heir to the family riches. She can’t. After Nola is driven out of the family home by Tom’s icy mother (Wilton at her best, the only person willing to mention the elephant in the room), Chris takes advantage of the separation by engaging Nola in an affair.

It’s at the moment where Point Match becomes more like a chess game, with Allen carefully moving the players into position for the best possible outcome. How the affair and its complications play out prove that Allen can still tell a great story without too much self-indulgence.

The change of scenery and new cast of players help Allen turn Match Point into a tournament of escapist entertainment worth rooting for.

Bad Sportsmanship

Tennis Pro Gets Caught In Domestic Net

Match Point

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Brian Cox, Emily Mortimer, Penelope Wilton, Matthew Goode. Directed by Woody Allen. 122 Minutes. Rated R.

Larsen Rating: $8.00

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