Woody Allen has always struggled with a desire to write high drama. I say struggled because as an artist he is inarguably more successful, not to mention universally recognized, as a comedian. His own life has taken its tragic turns, and Allen has been successful with dramatic films such as Crimes & Misdemeanors, a work that bears no little resemblance to his newest, Match Point. In the former film, however, Allen was present as the comic relief, while in his new work the tone hews closer to Crime & Punishment. The strain of a full-on tragedy results in a film that is ambitious and enjoyable, if ultimately flawed.
The protagonist of Match Point is Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a former tennis pro who has come to London to try and make his way. He takes a job as a tennis instructor and, between backhands, befriends one of his pupils, a wealthy society lad named Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode). Chris is soon introduced to the whole Hewett clan, begins dating Tom's sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer), and seems to be on his way to ingratiating himself into the good life. The catch: Tom's bombshell fiancée, a struggling American actress named Nola played by successful American actress Scarlett Johansson.
I have to stop here and say a word about the acting in this film. I don't know if Allen was trying out some kind of self-reflexive gag here, casting Johansson as a sexy American who can't act to save her life, but despite my best efforts to focus on her attributes, her performance is downright miserable. Rhys-Meyers is not much better, while all the Brits and supporting characters do an outstanding job. (Note to Allen: Please, please get a better casting director!)
Nola and Tom break up, Chris and Chloe get married, and then, in a spot of bad luck, Chris and Nola meet again, rekindling his irrepressible lust for her. The film is best here, playing back and forth across the affair and marriage, intertwining British society humor with the domestic sphere that Allen has always captured so well.
The problem is that Allen goes too far. If he wants to write a tragedy without paying lip service to his comic past, fine with me. Here, though, that desire overrides Allen's attention as a director. Chris is supposed to be a charming character, but Allen only shows him as a moody schemer. Many of the conversations between Chris and Nola sound less like dialogue than recitations of character motivations, the sort of from-the-heart claptrap that Allen should never let himself write.
Despite its flaws, I did enjoy Match Point. The tension builds palpably until you find yourself squirming for a way out. The film ends with a bit of finesse, and Allen's philosophical musing on the role that luck plays in life doesn't feel heavy-handed. With a better cast and sprinkle of levity, this could have been a brillant film. As it stands, I would say Allen has hit this one just out of bounds.