Woody Allen's Match Point opens with a strain of opera, with a tennis ball moving in slow motion back and forth over a net, and with the voice of Chris -- who left the big-money world tennis circuit for lack of drive and talent -- telling us that too much of life depends on luck. With a little luck, a ball that hits the net can fall in your court or in your opponent's. "It goes forward and you win," he says, "or maybe it doesn't and you lose."
Set in England, a first for Allen, Match Point actually takes place there for a while, before it begins to feel like Manhattan-on-the-Thames. It tells a story ideal for its opera metaphor, and rife with what Allen speciously labels "luck" (it's really more coincidence, spiked with a leaden dose of climactic deus ex machina). Still, I'm pleased to report that it's his best film in years, which is to say it's not a pathetic, self-justifying mess.
Match Point opens with Chris (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), who's in his 30s, taking a job as a tennis pro -- that is, a sycophant teacher to the very rich -- at an exclusive club. Right off he begins to coach Tom (Matthew Goode), a fellow of his own age, and also an opera aficionado. If this were a Merchant-Ivory film, they'd soon become furtive lovers, or at least they'd seem like they should. But such passions don't exist in Allen's orbit, so instead they become mates (British meaning).
Chris is Irish, and from the working class. He's done a wonderful job of getting over both, and he sounds as West End as you or I. Tom's father (Brian Cox), a wealthy businessman and good Liberal, supports the arts and admires Chris for pulling himself up, etc. etc. He welcomes Chris into his circle, as does Tom's sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer), whom Chris courts and marries. But not without first falling for Nola (Scarlett Johansson), Tom's fiancée, an American in London trying to make it as an actress. After Tom and Nola split up, the now-married Chris eventually begins an affair with Nola, and so on through a bunch of complications until the fat lady sings.
For a while, Match Point seems to want to be a class-conscious tale of the haves and the wanna-haves: Chris and Nola, who is escaping a dysfunctional Colorado family, are kindred spirits in a material world, and they largely enjoy the privilege of their new relationships without too much guilt or anxiety. Allen tries very hard to develop this theme, but he finally presents only an exegesis: His movie lacks effect, and he writes overly mannered dialogue that sounds more suited to recitation than performance -- even by British actors, who can, as we like to say, sound good reading the phone book.
The acting in the movie is suitable, except for Johansson, who's good only when Allen photographs her in close-up and directs her to speak hesitantly, so her languor becomes seductive. Otherwise, she's merely sullen, and increasingly shrill. This at least makes it easy to understand why Nola can't get past a first audition.
As Match Point unfolds, it becomes a dreary love story about people who talk too much. Soon we learn that you can only take the boy out of Ireland, and when Nola gets pregnant (oh, sorry: plot spoiler), Chris doesn't handle the situation very well, to say the least. Here we get into the terrain of Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, by way of Scotland Yard, with hints of his other work along the way -- although, to be fair, hints often so subtle, and often more a matter of rhythm and style, that it takes an intimate familiarity with his work to detect them, and a great affection for his work to find them more interesting than awkward. (There's a Cockney real estate agent who's an amusing echo of Annie Hall's "two guys named Cheech," an indication that Allen either can't help repeating himself or doesn't realize when he is.)
Allen is now 70 years old, but his work seems not to have matured with his body: He's still telling stories about the effect of young women on men. One wonders whether Chris feels uncomfortable among the upper classes in the same way that Allen feels uncomfortable among educated Manhattanite WASPs. This time his effort is a drama rather than a comedy, which only means the people in it have no sense of humor, and very little wit or charm. (As a dramatic filmmaker, he's never come close to the elegance and tension of his Interiors.)
Allen actually has his characters use the word "passion" in conversation to talk about sexual behavior, and they say the word "luck" over and over, bludgeoning us with his central motif in what he surely intends to be a sort of classical tautology, more suited to the stage than the screen. At one point, someone actually says both words in the same sentence. There's not a moment of spontaneity in the film -- not even a second of it. (The same can be said of Bergman, of course, although the result is entirely different.) And yet, as a work by a major American filmmaker who's been unwatchable for a decade or more, unable to translate his anxieties into estimable art, Match Point is at least not another train wreck.