In Match Point, Woody Allen finally leaves Manhattan.
Match Point is a good movie—a good, solid movie. Rap it with your knuckles, and unlike many recent holiday trinkets from Woody Allen, it won't sound hollow. For this oaken solidity, we can thank some wise decision-making: Woody Allen absents himself entirely from Match Point—he doesn't appear in it, and no one in it is even remotely his schnooky alter ego. He also absents Match Point entirely from Manhattan—it takes place in high-society London and its environs. Truth is, even Woody's core devotees needed a change of scenery, a shift in routine, and in this cool, poised, and very Anglophilic quasi-thriller, they certainly have it. Gone are jazz, psychotherapy, and the Upper West Side; in their place are opera, sang-froid, and Belgravia. Early on, our hero stares into a copy of Crime and Punishment, and one's heart sinks. (For a man who has said he reviled his formal schooling, Allen has a peculiar taste for freshman seminarese.) But then it quickly rises: He drops the Dostoevsky and picks up a Cambridge Companion to Dostoevsky instead. It's a nice joke, but when the opening-day audience I sat in giggled, it was half in relief.
The self-improving gent in question is Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a still-young Irishman who has recently retired as a professional tennis player. When we meet him, Wilton is a beautiful and humble and circumspect man in his late 20s or early 30s. He applies for, and gets, a job as a pro at an ultra-posh, Wimbledon-like club, where he meets Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), a young, equally beautiful upper-crust Brit. Wilton is a bootstrapper—tennis was his way out of the lace-curtain poverty of his Irish childhood. Tom is a toff's toff, the product, seemingly, of generations of Oxbridge and disciplined leisure. The early scenes of Match Point, in which the two men become fast friends, first over tennis, then over drinks, are as luscious and promising of wickedness to come as a summer afternoon in a Henry James novel, and Allen presents them with the self-assured suavity of an old master. As Wilton slowly works his way into the Hewett family bosom, Allen's lens becomes more loving: This is a bosom much to be admired, after all, what with the Hewetts' infinite wealth, their infinite refinement, and a gentle old patriarch still an active captain of British industry. It is, alas, not the only bosom worth admiring. Tom's fiancee is Scarlett Johansson, playing a young American actress named Nola.
Johansson brings the spirit of Hollywood with her wherever she goes these days, and Match Point is no exception. She has grown up so fast (too fast?), from the little anomic mallrat from Ghost World to self-conscious Hollywood royalty, with a permanent magic-hour glow now ladled over her like au jus. There is something faintly ignoble about falling in love with her too quickly, a fact that Allen manipulates to great effect. "All men who see you want to attack you," is how her fiance Tom indelicately puts it, and Allen presents Johansson as a coolly reposed if dumbfounding sex object that Wilton, the Irish arriviste, decides he must possess. But the ante has been upped: Wilton has already married into the Hewett family, taking the hand of Tom's sweet but awkward younger sister, Chloe. He has won the affections of the patriarch (another perfect, tone-setting performance from Brian Cox). And thanks to the patriarch, he has a new career, working his way up the corporate ladder.
Like Henry James before him, Allen has gone to England to make a comedy of someone else's manners. But he has loaded it up with something James never had any time for, some bewitching hooey about luck's place in the cosmos and the metaphysics of guilt. Allen has been stewing over these Big Ideas since at least Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), and much of Match Point's balder ruminations are lifted directly out of the earlier film. Match Point is a tauter film, and there is mercifully little of the dashed-off speechifying that often mars Allen's movies. But even with all its cool, sinuous elegance, the movie's wickedness is finally too generic, its comedy of social manners smudged by a need to obsessively revisit pet themes. The compelling question—once you've had grouse-shooting and boxes at the opera, how do you go back to blonde bookcases, Venetian blinds, and woks?—finally gives way to dull standbys: What if life is totally unchoreographed by any higher power? What if the soul—if it can be said to exist at all—is totally coterminous with the body? What if there is a heaven, but you can't get a pastrami on rye after midnight?
OK, this last is conspicuously absent from Match Point, but its absence, and the structure of the classic Woody Allen joke—Not only is God dead, but try getting a plumber on the weekends—tells us something about the arc of Allen's career and why he has ended up peeping in on English aristocracy. Allen grew up a sweet kid in the outer boroughs, at a great distance from both money and culture. His great, anxious fantasy about New York City has been that somewhere out there lie little pockets of Shangri-La where money and culture go together, and with a lovely ease. His two incomparable skills as a filmmaker haven't been comedy and tragedy so much as an ability to bring outer-borough incredulity to bear on the merely pretentious ("Oh, that's funny, because I happen to have Marshall McLuhan right here"), while still summoning up an immense affection for the parlors of the extremely fortunate. Taken as a group, Allen's films are the most complete love poem to modern New York City there is.
Paradoxically, Match Point is that poem's final stanza. In the London of the hyper-rich, Allen gives us the last window his Coney Island nose can push up against, now that he himself is a cultural icon with a mansion (recently sold) on the Upper East Side. But how much has dropped away in the process? Coney Island, Manhattan, a plumber on the weekends. And so, also paradoxically, Woody Allen is being overpraised for having made a movie that feels nothing like a Woody Allen movie. The implication lurking behind so many of its glowing reviews has been: What a relief that all the tics are finally gone! Match Point starts out crisply and deliciously, but in the end, it's a chess problem crossed with an ethics exam. I wanted to know so much more: about what it's like to be poor, to want to be rich, and to feel the force of a sexual grippe that would make you piss it all away. What do we get instead? A fact pattern lifted from Dostoevsky and soaked in nobody's warm blood.
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.
Still from Match Point © DreamWorks.All rights reserved.