2005Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Emily Mortimer, Scarlett Johansson
f nothing else, Match Point catches Woody Allen taking aim at his own ilk. After years of potshots at a youth culture he couldn’t be more estranged from, he’s secured relevant satirical targets in The Woman in White and The Motorcycle Diaries, the specious playthings of the very middlebrow elite who regularly flock to see the new Allen joint. Marks of a dilapidating marriage show in laconic post-show chit-chat between husband and wife, a mere “it was good” sufficient in making this modern faux-art feel markedly inadequate. But while Woody’s growing sense of a decadent upper-class bereft of intellectual curiosity is on the mark, what are Fyodor Dostoevsky and Giuseppe Verdi doing next to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Walter Salles? Beats me.
Maybe an overt swoop at populist mediocrity, coming from an artist giving into his worst impulses at the expense of good sense, would be too naked a move. Maybe the classicists are there to provide fight-the-insipid-power hope, or to coronate Woody’s latest an untouchable palimpsest scrawled upon by the greats. I’m reluctant to take a stand, if only because so much of Match Point is hastily considered, half-baked. And even if there’s considerably more “oomph” here than in recent efforts, I consider Woody’s renewed love of raising the stakes about as laudable as a foaming loon brandishing a lit firecracker. By comparison, the modest pleasures of a Hollywood Ending or Sweet and Lowdown are gravy.
Sometimes, artistic laziness doesn’t easily translate into broadly symptomatic blocks of sociological meaning, and in spite of my reservations, I’ll be the first to cry foul at those who’ve accused Woody of misogyny. The Nympho From Hell scenario he plays out here and in Crimes and Misdemeanors is just as reductive of progressively agitated dudes as it is of progressively shrill femmes: If Scarlett Johansson’s Nola morphs into Anjelica Huston, Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ Chris becomes Martin Landau. There is truth in the idea that the qualities we once found rapturous in another can grow to seem cumbersome beyond relief; the loss of faith makes not a sexist pig.
But since Johansson is another person altogether in the second half—less elusive, more invasive—“seem” isn’t part of the equation. In other words, how would you feel if a sultry temptress started making regular stops at your urban fortress, callous to your pleas to frickin’ be reasonable? Duh. Chris’s frustration is inevitable, not subjective, and madness merely sifts through him like a straw. Any efforts to obtain distance from Chris are undone by the sheer whininess of Nola’s sheer whining. (Redundancy intended—one only hopes that Woody can say the same.)
At least Nola is less one-note than Huston’s Dolores in the overrated Crimes, but only because, this time around, Woody precedes that note with an overture of portent. Initially, Nola is such a nebulous thing that she inadvertently hints at entire layers of trickery. Johansson isn’t playing a starry-eyed actress from Colorado; she’s playing Scarlett Johansson, playing a starry-eyed actress from Colorado. Her vacillation between venomous, succinct Billy Wilder-isms and small-town shyness doesn’t compute, but it does intrigue, the implication being there’s an untold X to justify her schizo persona. Meeting Chris after a failed audition, Nola pulls her words from the air as if still under urgent scrutiny, hiding unforeseen intensity behind a veil of callowness. But the veil isn’t lifted; moreover, the veil never existed. In the words of Oprah, “I feel duped.”
As Chris’s fears escalate, Nola doesn’t account for her strangeness, and instead almost willingly becomes the girl of his nightmares—and, credibility be damned, this is no dream. While Match Point’s Theme of Choice is Luck, it does itself ill by depending on improbable things, and ignoring improbable people. The film can safely feign complexity by juggling boons and pangs, moods of remorse and gleeful abandon. But in Woody’s world, human emotion is a linear creature. The problem is that crescendos on two legs don’t register as people. Woody can contrast to high heavens Chris’s anxiety with the banality of his aristocratic others, but the character remains Escalating Gloom personified. What does register is a filmmaker out of touch with his own neuroses, making a final bid for recognition by exacerbating lives beyond his reach.