Sunday, January 15, 2006

Match Point

The first scene of the movie underlines the theme, the "match point," the moment in tennis, or life, where the ball hovers above the net. Will it go over or fall back? Is it luck or fate? This point is thoroughly drummed into our heads as we plunge into the life of a young man in contemporary Britain.

Chris Wilton is a former tennis pro who decided to quit when he became painfully aware he was never going to be among the best. We get the backstory right away, as we see Chris going for a job as a tennis pro at a London recreation club. Right away, he meets Tom Hewett, whose tennis game needs improvement, and wham! Chris vaults into the world of the well-to-do.

He finds that he likes this life. He has a bit of pride, always insisting that he pay for his own opera ticket, or his own dinner, but soon that pride or willpower fades away in the face of overwhelming opposition. He meets and likes Chloe, Tom's "sweet" sister. It's obvious Chris isn't as interested in Chloe as much as he is in her style and level of living. When he succumbs to all the trappings and gets married, we see them enter their future apartment, an expansive affair with breathtaking views of the Thames.

We get the idea that Chris is a nice guy, self-effacing and handsome with nice manners, but never with the easy wit and charm of a Tom Hewitt. While Chris doesn't belong in this stratum of society, he sincerely wants to, and takes an office job that is stifling to him. Because of this boredom with his job, and yes, his new wife, we almost understand the next step when Chris meets Nola, Tom's current girlfriend, a blonde American who drinks a bit too much, flirts a bit too much, and can pout with the best of them. Against all reason, Chris goes after Nola like a cannonball shot. She becomes the obsessive object that has nothing to do with his newfound world. The movie after this is how this affair affects his life from that moment forward.

Is this the match point director Woody Allen was pointing us toward? It turns out not to be, and there are several moments within the film that tantalize us with the idea that this might be it, moments that act as red herrings. When the moment hits, do not fear, director Allen will pound us over the head with the obviousness of it all.

Character Chris Wilton seems a likeable fellow at first. But then we learn what he's really like. He has no feelings whatsoever for his new family, for his wife, even for the woman over whom he risks it all. They are all pawns in his game, a game that must be tightly controlled. With so many pawns on the board, however, it becomes inevitable that he can't control them all. And Nola, the spoiled American whom we don't at all like when we first meet her, gains our sympathy as we watch her rolling down the hill, picking up momentum with her bad choices.

There are fine performances from Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Chris, and especially from 21-year-old Scarlett Johansson as Nola, who gets stronger and stronger in each film role. Johansson may garner an academy award nomination for this one, as she gets every stroke, every nuance right.

I would hate to give the ending away, but I have to point out that this movie is really an inverted A Place in the Sun, the '50's movie starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. And that's grand company. The largest surprise in the plot of Match Point is one that doesn't stand close inspection. But that's nitpicking. Let's just say that this latest of Woody Allen's films is one of the most surprising, one of his least predictable films. And that's good enough. Thumb's up.


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