Film Reviews (2006)  
  Match Point  

In terms of existential motifs, there isn’t much in Woody Allen’s “Match Point” that differs in substance from 1989’s “Crimes And Misdemeanors”. The basic plot—a man commits a murder and the universe does not punish him—is identical in both films. Allen often riffs on one theme in different films, though, and here he delivers a short slice of nasty that pleases in the boldness of its intellectual conceit even as it disappoints in the skimpiness of the drama. Jonathan Rhys-Myers and Scarlett Johansson ably hold up the core of the film as the lovers who occasion the knock on God’s door—no one’s home, of course—but their story is nothing more than a quick game of tennis, and Allen isn’t shy about letting the audience know it.

“Match Point” twists the earlier theme by adding the element of luck. A virtuoso, framing set-piece involving objects clearing, or not clearing, a net or a railing, neatly illustrates the role of chance in human affairs. Judah in ‘Crimes’ was cleared by a stroke of luck, too. The murder was pinned on a drifter with other murders to his name. Chris’s escape from the law is more explicitly lucky, however, and this bald conceit makes “Match Point” a kind of laboratory experiment. From the first frame to the last, the film, which includes voiceover narration, a blatant reference to “Crime And Punishment”, and even the appearance of ghosts to allow the hero a monologue, exists as a model of human fate, about as artificial as a Greek tragedy. This is more of a rats-in-a-maze spectacle than Allen has yet attempted, and as such it makes the tale of murder a tougher, but ultimately thin addition to Allen’s existential movies. Whatever “Match Point” gains by leaving out the usual moral handwringing by fidgety Allen avatars it gives back in its startling coldness.

After all, “Crimes And Misdemeanors” had many loving, warm touches of pathos and comedy to go with its serving of Meaningless Cosmos. The film even has a philosopher speaking directly to the audience, yet never does Allen let his movie slip into didacticism. There was the secondary plot, in which the idea of an artist’s treatment of tragedy was essayed; Allen was commenting on the central murder plot with his secondary tale of the documentary filmmaker’s almost-infidelity, a deft piece of self-criticism. There was also the mere fact that “Crimes And Misdemeanors” was a superior entertainment. Safe in his New York milieu, Allen drew a richer cast of characters and the breadth of the dramatic flow—tragic to funny and back several times—made for a riveting movie. Only once does “Match Point” approach that kind of humor, wit, and social perception. The Hewetts begin arguing in a drawing room, but their arguing is of the British variety, meaning their words criss-cross the room in lukewarm, clause-ridden volleys. The laugh comes when Mr. Hewett sternly rebukes Tom: “Don’t raise your voice to your mother”. It’s about the only Allenesque joke in the film, and unfortunately it stands as a reminder of what’s missing.

And there it is, once again: in reviewing an Allen film, there is the overwhelming problem of comparison to the rest of Allen’s work. This is a big compliment; few other directors require a complete re-think of their entire body of work with each new film, but Allen is one. Much praise has been heaped on “Match Point” for its lack of the familiar Allen tropes: the wisecracking Allen proxy, New York City, a middle-aged cast, the anxiety of Jewishness in some form or other. Isn’t this proof that Allen wants to take a few hard right turns from his past?

Yes and no. Certainly the literally foreign setting of “Match Point” brings Allen away from his comfort zone, and there are pockets of rich results. The country scenes, knowing shots of city life in London, and plausibly English English people are all distinct and new for him. The sleekness of the plot rivals that of a minor Hitchcock, which is no minor feat. But none of this produced a great film, just a different one. Allen has entered a phase of his filmmaking career in which he is producing simple sketches and not full paintings. Recent films like “Match Point”, “Small Time Crooks”, “Curse Of The Jade Scorpion”, and “Hollywood Ending” don’t have the audacious complexity and finesse of his earlier films. In a way he has returned to his roots, writing set pieces for The New Yorker. Unquestionably sharp in their premises, they are nevertheless quickly consumed and quickly forgotten.