Love and Death

Their place in the sun: Scarlett Johansson and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in 'Match Point'

Their place in the sun: Scarlett Johansson and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in 'Match Point'

Woody Allen's Match Point simulates the feeling of flipping through an issue of Town & Country in the VIP lounge of a European airport while sipping a Campari and soda as the sun sets. The hook--the little dose of addictive nicotine, pulling us out of vacation mode--is that we're never allowed to hear the characters' thoughts; we get only the surfaces those characters present to the world around them. This simple choice produces a nearly suffocating tension that, in the last half-hour, has audiences gasping, shrieking, and literally cowering from the screen. (Not since De Palma's The Fury in 1978 have I seen an audience respond like this. It recalls those mythical hillbillies in the silent era who leapt out of the way of the charging locomotive they saw in the very first motion picture.) Forced to set up shop in England for financial reasons, the New Yorker has magically reinvented himself: Unable to write wisecracks for an all-English cast, Allen instead devised a sleek shocker in the Hitchcock/Chabrol vein and, through good luck or an iron will, made the most fully achieved movie of his 40-year directing career.

Chris (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), an ingenuous and goodhearted Irish tennis pro, befriends Tom (Matthew Goode), the scion of a wealthy London family who brings his less fortunate friend into the bosom of his powerful clan. There, Chris falls for Tom's sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) and impresses Tom and Chloe's dad (Brian Cox) with his decency and work ethic, finding a posh position in the old man's business. When Chris encounters Nola (Scarlett Johansson), the neurotic, palpably dangerous, smoking-hot American actress whom Tom is dating, we can feel Chris's best-laid plans coming undone, and see a massive train wreck in the works.

That's as much as I'll say about the story--which depends on our expectations of how this four-way collision will play itself out, and on our knowledge of film noir conventions and Woody Allen movies. The movie veers in directions that cause the audience to cry out in amazement, but most of the positive reactions to Match Point I've encountered provide an alibi for the audience, some excuse for the pleasure this movie affords. For instance: It's really an allegory of the Iraq War and the things we'll do to pay for our quality of life. Or: The movie is an unconscious statement on Woody's fetishization of the lifestyles of the rich and famous--he's really more Patrick Bateman than Philip Barry after all!

Indeed, the last reel recalls the "test" that Alfred Hitchcock claimed he put the audience through in Psycho, when we cheered as Norman Bates succeeded in sinking Marion Crane's car in the swamp. We, too, are put to the test (and flunk it); but the director isn't inflicting a guilt trip here. Unlike Michael Haneke in the similarly upscale Caché, Allen wants us to empathize with his privileged characters rather than condemn them--to the point of making the most high-born aristocrats the most decent characters in the picture. (This isn't naive snobbery; it's a deliberate provocation.) What we take away from the movie is the awareness that we, too, would do what Chris did--and, knowing what we know, would do it again.

This is a frightening place for an audience to find itself--and, if I may play amateur shrink, it's the reason why many bohemian-bourgeois critics find the movie so distasteful. We are not given the feeling of superiority we have at the end of A History of Violence, when the family descends into avoidance and make-believe; in Match Point, we are that family.

Still, this is not a message movie. It's probably the cinema's closest equivalent to the fiction of Patricia Highsmith, where the reader is titillated by lush yet minimal descriptions of the sweet life and then stays to endure a bitter, punitive punch line...still titillated enough to pick up another Highsmith volume and begin the ride all over again. What impresses me most about Match Point is not its moralism, but the 24-karat perfection of Allen's style. As scene glides effortlessly into scene, every detail of decor, composition, and rhythm fits into place with an audible click, recalling the languorous setup to a short, sharp payoff in Chabrol's La cérémonie or Hitchcock's Frenzy--with the difference that Allen's movie is actually better made than either.

As the louche, good-humored Tom, Matthew Goode is a revelation--an effortless charmer who could be the next Hugh Grant. Emily Mortimer beautifully refurbishes the Mia Farrow role, the good-egg wife who seems to feign ignorance of her straying husband, making her sexy, lively, and surprising in ways that make Chris's choice all the more anguishing. And as Chris, Rhys-Meyers is far and away the strongest movie version of Highsmith's blithely sociopathic Tom Ripley--the humble, eager striver who woos everyone with his transparency, yet seems to be whirring with calculation 24 hours a day. Rhys-Meyers is a lamentable figure--a boy so pretty that audiences forget he's a first-rate actor. (His performance as a similar jokey, hurting hollow man in Mike Hodges's I'll Sleep When I'm Dead is equally undervalued.) The only sour note in the movie is sounded by the luscious Johansson, who has gone from fascinating blank canvas to self-aware succubus in only a few movies: Where everyone else selflessly serves the script, she seems to act in a mirror.

When he tries to be the thinking man's Neil Simon, Allen appears mechanical--even in his aptitude for the carpentry of the well-constructed screenplay. But by turning himself into an American Chabrol, he has made strengths out of most of his flaws: exclusively uptown tastes, dramaturgy out of a leather-bound book, an insistence on a single, self-justifying point of view. I pray he will now cling tightly to his worst foible as an artist: his tendency to repeat himself.