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What we think about when we think about Woody Allen: the Woody of the 1970s, parodic nebbish-genius turned self-satiric nebbish-romantic, whose films bore rich, thick meat and yet could produce belly laughs in the educated middle-aged. The Woody of the next decade, workaholic shotgun-spray auteur, who made some kind of progression toward maturity and inventiveness every other film. And the Woody of late, recycling menopauser and master of mannerism, his scenarios tame remakes, his characters instantly recognizable as meta-Woodys aping the man’s trademarked delivery. Given the career entropy, his survival has been remarkable, as is the forgiving shower of accolades shepherding his new film, Match Point, home from Cannes. A modest and mildly pretentious mediocrity in the Woodman canon, the movie sports a British veneer, and this relative oddness has been cause for “return to form!” sighs of relief. But Allen is, alas, pushing forward and downward into de-fertilized soil badly in need of crop rotation.
To its misfortune, Match Point must be viewed in terms of its hype; Allen has long been less a mere filmmaker than an art-entertainment axiom by whom many critics and urbanites have defined their cultural lives. It must be a depressing responsibility. His new hero, Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), is a soft-voiced, unmoneyed lad hired as a tennis pro at an elite London country club. (Honestly, did you ever imagine that Allen and Rhys-Meyers—whose snarling, hip-swiveling career highlights run from Velvet Goldmine to Ride With the Devil to Titus—even existed on the same dimensional plane?) We know nothing about Chris beyond his fastidious politeness—gracious, dead-air Brit banter as only Allen can imagine it—as he is introduced around, meeting up with the gregarious and filthy rich Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), whose aristocratic family requires more social encounters and empty chitchat. Match Point is Allen’s longest film—over two hours—and its first quarter lopes on tepidly enough to suggest the alienating first act of Kubrick’s The Shining, but without the satanic visual chill and menacing psycho- pathology. Chris falls in with the Hewetts; the patriarch (Brian Cox) mysteriously thinks him capable of great achievements in finance; the sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer), adopts him as a boyfriend; and Tom’s bedroom-eyes fiancée, Nola (Scarlett Johansson), eventually takes him as a lover.
Even after Chris’s social climbing has born material fruit—marriage, a well-heeled job in the father-in-law’s firm—the tone and content of Match Point are so thoroughly banal that you begin to expect a revelation of Pinteresque stylization, a moment when the zombification of the upper classes manifests as an idea. Forget it; the narrative’s comments on class mobility and priorities would sit comfortably in an Altoids tin. What does become apparent is that all of this cloth-eared exhaustion is leading to a redo of a story thread from an earlier, and far richer, Allen movie (to go nameless here). Once that light dawns, the Allen-schooled viewer can only be overcome by a yen for the 1980s, and more robust Woodian cuisine.
Lauding Match Point as a social morality tale has bite in its backswing—Allen is one of this nation’s most unapologetic wealth pornographers, here savoring the massive estates, stables, ultra-high-end retailers, the breakfast nooks that literally look out upon Westminster Abbey, the libraries filled with more leather-bound books than the filmographies of James Ivory and Harry Potter combined. Could Allen ever be interested again in poor people, American or otherwise? Both Chris and Nola are designated as low-income “outsiders,” but nobody’s at a loss for high-life, high-rent funds. Talk in the country of being “an accomplished grouse shooter!” seems inevitable; how did Allen avoid a foxhunt? Chris’s rampaging success in banking, like virtually every tendril of the script that might interface with the world outside Allen’s moving castle, is briefly talked up, never made flesh.
Even if this were a yuppified shot at An American Tragedy, the performances Allen gets, with his puppet hand permanently up his cast’s colons, suggest an undergrad film adaptation of Dreiser. Approximating Woodspeak, Rhys-Meyers sounds as if he’s faking his own accent, while the naturally warm and ironic Johansson is a square peg slammed into the round hole of her role’s cliché-sultry, cigarette-and-come-hither-look femme. Crushingly humorless, Match Point also has a grade-school-simple Major Theme: At the outset, Chris’s narration informs us that life is luck, and at any point we could win or lose. Whoa. After the sixth or seventh time someone proclaims themselves “lucky!” I began to feel less so, and to wonder if luck fades, like eyesight, with age. After all, if Allen was flipping coins, he’d come up heads half the time.