Woody Allen makes one movie a year, a fact his longtime fans have annually taken as a gift and something of a warning. If he made a great movie, it would provide yet another career high mark to add to his already stellar list of wonderful, highly accomplished, New York-centric films. Or, it would result in a forgettable dud that could be tossed aside, in anticipation of another, possibly better film the following year.
Allen’s career has become so long and extraordinary, his Best Picture Oscar for “Annie Hall,” the landmark 1977 film that defined the modern romantic comedy (and beat “Star Wars” for the top prize), seems like he was only warming up. It’s arguable that he surpassed that film with the subsequent “Interiors” the following year, and the exquisite “Manhattan,” which blended art and hilarity, the following year.
The eighties resulted in career high marks, “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” the latter, an essential, perfect balancing act of the thriller and comedy genres. Then came the nineties, with underrated, intriguingly different films like “Shadows and Fog,” “Husbands and Wives” (an emotionally charged film released around the time of his personal scandal) and “Manhattan Murder Mystery.” After the justifiably celebrated “Bullets Over Broadway” and “Mighty Aphrodite,” two of his best and funniest, came a period of further experimentation, self indulgent exploration, further odes to favorite filmmakers and a handful of movies that were good but seemingly unnecessary. I never miss a new Allen film but the amount of movies he was making that didn’t connect were starting to build. For every “Sweet and Lowdown,” another “Hollywood Ending” or “Melinda and Melinda,” (two films that, like others around this time, have their merits but feel like creative leftovers.
Then came “Match Point,” his first film to be set in present day Britain, with a cast of Americans and English actors. It was a laugh-free, erotic thriller, starring Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Chris, a transient tennis instructor whose friendship with the wealthy Tom (Matthew Goode) changes his life. Tom’s sister (Emily Mortimer) falls in love with Chris immediately, thrusting Chris into a life of privilege and opportunity he’d never known before. An inevitable engagement follows, as well as an encounter between Chris and Tom’s stunning American girlfriend, Nola (Scarlett Johansson), who Chris becomes hopelessly attracted to. What begins as a will-they-or-won’t-they nail biter becomes a thriller with an abruptness that is shocking.
Allen wisely sets up the themes of luck, guilt and desire, clues us in with his references to Russian literature and takes his story in directions that are impossible to predict and deliciously daring. Watchful viewers could possibly see where the story is going (especially when you consider how little we know of Chris, coupled with Allen’s insistence that chance and fate can turn at any time).
The turning point of Woody Allen writing/directing “Match Point” represents possibly the greatest about-face of his entire career. Allen has dug into the darkness before, notably in “Another Woman,” “Shadows and Fog,” “Interiors,” “September” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” the latter being the closest cinematic cousin to “Match Point.” He later made “Cassandra’s Dream,” an overlooked and terrific thriller about moral compromise among siblings, which feels like a companion piece to “Match Point.” The arrival of “Match Point,” which was hugely successful, critically acclaimed and is considered a return to form, gave us a Woody Allen movie that was distinctly his but unlike anything we expected from him.
The acting couldn’t be better from everyone involved, with Meyers and Mortimer especially engaging as two people who are aware of the power and security that comes with privilege. Goode has rarely been better, though this, even more so than anything she’d done previously, presented the arrival of Johansson as a sex symbol, on par with Monroe or Hayworth. More importantly, it’s a sensational performance that couldn’t be more unlike her tender work in “Lost in Translation.”
The less you know about “Match Point” going in, the better, as its sinister twists sneak up on you. Allen’s neurotic world view from his farces is on hand, but in a way that coldly suggests an empty world of inevitable human tragedy. The mournful opera tracks on the soundtrack perfectly convey thematically what Allen is getting at here, that some fear their social demise as much as, or even more so, their actual death. The conclusion is both hilarious and horrifying, a knowingly cynical but oddly plausible end to an extraordinary tale. Allen has made great films since, as well as a few unfortunate works in between. I remain a persistent fan but few films in 2005, let alone from Allen’s body of work, are as sexy, jaw-dropping and spellbinding as “Match Point.”