Existence is given the nihilist treatment in Woody Allen’s decent, but ultimately pointless, new film “Match Point.” When the writing is on target, the movie explores some very interesting aspects of human behavior, going through an unexpected genre switch along the way. That said, most of the time “Match Point” is mired in problems: the first half is unforgivably bad, the acting is frequently laughable. But, much worse, the film is a non-statement, a story which ultimately leads nowhere. Although this may mirror life, a work of art with nothing to say seems to me not worth seeing either. But I’m not a nihilist.
Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, ex-“Beckham” heartthrob) is an Irish tennis champion who gives up the game because he doesn’t have the drive to win. Quiet and brooding, he works at a country club in London as a personal instructor to the wealthy. Luckily, he hits it off with his first client, Tom Hewitt (Matthew Goode), who quickly brings him home to the family estate and introduces him to his beautiful sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer). Chris ambivalently returns Chloe’s warm affection, instead showing an interest in Nola (Scarlett Johansson), Tom’s young, spoiled American fiance.
Chris is straight out of Camus’s “The Stranger,” drifting, interested in nothing. Behind his perfect manners he is a complete blank. In Nola he sees something crafted from the same indifferent mold and an unlikely passion takes hold of him. During a rainy afternoon at the Hewitt’s country home, Chris and Nola consummate this one-sided love Jane-Austen-style in the tall grass. After that, Nola refuses to meet Chris. Several months later, Tom dumps her and she vanishes from London, leaving Chris to marry Chloe and wearily rise in the corporate ranks of her father’s company.
But, one day, Chris bumps into Nola again at the Tate Modern, triggering a far more serious affair.
As with all of Allen’s recent films, “Match Point” has a gimmick, which I won’t give away because it significantly alters the second half of the film. Suffice to say, that half borrows substantially from “Crime and Punishment” and is much better for it.
Allen has left New York, both for good and ill, setting “Match Point” in London. The change of location makes for more beautiful views, but Allen’s strange dialogue sounds even more foreign coming from the mouths of the British elite. He cares not a jot about cultural accuracy, making no effort to remove distinctly American expressions such as “G and T” (for gin and tonic) from the film. And, as expected from a Woody Allen picture, the cadence of normal speech patterns is markedly absent. This largely hampers the romantic first half, which relies mostly on banter and very little plot. Only when Dostoevsky starts writing the story does the film engage at all.
Because his motivation is kept forever hidden from the audience, Chris’s part is very difficult, calling for an actor with a fine-tuned sense of subtlety — Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is not that actor. Allen’s flat dialogue is actually amplified by Rhys-Meyers’s terribly sincere delivery. It only hurts that he is constantly talking to the wonderful Emily Mortimer (Chloe Hewitt), who speaks her lines with an infectious bubbly joy. A recasting, perhaps with talented Rhys-Meyers look-alike Jude Law, would have made this film much better.
Johansson is similarly disappointing, capitalizing on surly inertia for the umpteenth time. In an ironic reversal, possibly intentional, neither Chris nor Nola is likeable, but the Hewitts are just lovely. Apparently, in Allen’s world, the rich are simply nicer.
Unlike other directors who have changed their style to take advantage of more dynamic techniques, Allen sticks stubbornly to form. The film’s amateurish camera work feels like it hasn’t evolved since the days of “Annie Hall,” lingering in intense close-ups through dialogues which drag on and on (and on). Poor Rhys-Meyers can’t act his way through Allen’s long takes, but, luckily, frequent shots of the stately interiors of ritzy mansions cleanse the palate.
Although the ending of “Match Point” comes about unexpectedly, a surprise with no purpose can’t make up for such an awkward, self-conscious film. As many critics say, this may be Allen’s best film in a decade, but in the company of “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion,” “Celebrity” and “Everyone Says I Love You,” that’s nothing to be proud of.