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"MATCH POINT"
(2006) (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Scarlett Johansson) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A former tennis pro must choose between his cushy, newly attained lifestyle and having an affair with his friend's alluring girlfriend who's bewitched him.
PLOT:
Chris Wilton (JONATHAN RHYS MEYERS) is a former professional tennis player who's tired of the touring and not being quite good enough to compete with the best in the game. Accordingly, he's moved to London where he's taken a job as a tennis pro teaching the elite at a local club. Among his clients is Tom Hewett (MATTHEW GOODE), the debonair and dashing young adult son of wealthy businessman Alec Hewett (BRIAN COX). Sensing a kindred spirit in Chris, Tom instantly befriends and introduces him to his pretty sister Chloe (EMILY MORTIMER), with both inviting Chris to spend time with their family.

While Chris is attracted to Chloe and the two soon become an item, he's bewitched by Tom's fiancée, Nola Rice (SCARLETT JOHANSSON). While Tom's mother Eleanor (PENELOPE WILTON) thinks the struggling American actress is below her son, the young woman repeatedly bewitches Chris, but considering the scenario, he can't do anything about it.

Soon, Chris and Chloe are married and Alec has gotten him a lucrative job, but the pressure of trying to conceive a baby somewhat sours Chris' feelings for Chloe, especially considering that he's still fixated on Nola. From that point on, and as the two begin having an affair, Tom must choose between his comfortable and cushy lifestyle and the danger and excitement of seeing Nola on the side.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
As is the case with most any sport, one needn't ever have picked up a racket, served an ace or participated in a grueling volley to appreciate and/or enjoy watching tennis players and their matches with others. Liking boxing and other such two-person sports, it's intriguing simply because it pits one person against another in a confined area, with only their skills, smarts and physical abilities giving them the chance to succeed. Of course, the more a viewer has invested in such a match -- be it rooting for or against one of the players -- the more engaging and tense it becomes.

While tennis begins Woody Allen's latest drama, "Match Point," and serves up some related symbolism of its own throughout the two hour offering, the film isn't exactly about the sport. Instead, it's a character-driven drama that's akin to "Unfaithful" that slowly but methodically turns into a suspense thriller along the lines of "Fatal Attraction." And in doing so, it's the filmmaker's best effort in years, following mediocre pictures such as "Melinda and Melinda," "Anything Else" and "Hollywood Ending."

Much of that's due to the auteur all but removing himself (or his physical stand-in thereof), most of his usual neurotic material, and his usual New York setting from the work (the film is set and was shot in London). Other than a soundtrack comprised of period opera tunes and an elitist bunch of characters who frequent the art museums, opera and such, there's little here that says "Woody Allen." In fact, some might think "Hitchcock" as the film unfolds and transforms into a psychological thriller.

Others, however (and rightly so), might just think of Allen and his 1989 comedic thriller "Crimes and Misdemeanors." In that film, Martin Landau plays an ophthalmologist who cheats on his wife -- Claire Bloom -- with flight attendant Anjelica Huston. Things seem peachy until the latter becomes uncomfortably needy, resulting in a visit with his brother (Jerry Orbach) who has some mob connections and might be able to deal with the situation.

The thrice-Oscar nominated picture looked into the concept of how far people will go to protect their lifestyles after tempting fate by playing with fire, so to speak. Here, the former tennis pro played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers quickly moves up the corporate and societal ladder after falling in with the right family. He marries the lovely daughter -- Emily Mortimer -- but can't keep his eyes and eventually his hands off the character played by Scarlett Johansson who's engaged to the dashing family son embodied by Matthew Goode (who seems to be channeling Rupert Everett).

Although Johansson's character is a knock-out, one of the script's problems -- as penned by Allen -- is that such beauty and sensuality aren't enough to make us believe Chris would be so instantly bewitched upon first meeting her (one of the first things he says to her is commenting on her sensual lips). The set-up, of course, is that she's forbidden fruit (potentially being his future sister-in-law) that tantalizing dangles before him, all as his new wife becomes fixated on becoming pregnant.

But he desires desire rather than just mechanical sex and thus risks ruining everything by having an affair with her. The lies then start building up, Johansson's character starts showing signs of the to-be-expected Glenn Close turn for the worse, and Meyers' character must decide what to do as he reaches the breaking point (thus the title).

Unlike "C&M," there's no comedy, and the vicarious soul-searching elements and theme aren't as deep here. The biggest problem, though, and returning back to the aforementioned example of rooting for a tennis player, is that we don't care about any of the characters.

Sure, Mortimer's one is the initial victim, but by turning her into a non-productive, rich girl, wannabe baby machine, Allen keeps her from being a completely sympathetic character. Goode's has broken up with Johansson's, so he's out of the picture (figuratively, not literally) and Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton play socially elite and really only just periphery characters (but all of the performances range from solid to good).

All of which leads us back to the ones played by Meyers and Johansson. In the second half, hers takes an abrupt about-face that feels incongruous with how she acted before (a turn of events leads to that, and while conceptually it and her reaction work, her turn -- in terms of the execution -- feels more like just a plot necessity), and thus there's little attraction to rooting for her.

And since neither Meyers nor Allen imbue the protagonist with any sort of charming, likable or sympathetic trait, it's similarly hard to root for him to get out of his self-created mess. Of course, some (meaning anyone -- but especially women -- who's been strung along by another via sex) may just root against him, but even that doesn't play out in a completely satisfactory fashion.

One needn't have had an affair and then gone to extreme measures to resolve matters to appreciate what transpires here -- as most of the drama is solid and the late-in-the-game thriller aspects actually work rather well. Yet, had we felt more of an emotional connection with any of the characters, the film would have likely been much better, or at least more engaging.

As it stands, it's similar to (but not quite as nasty as) "Closer" in that the performances are good and one can appreciate the artistry involved from those in front of and behind the camera. Yet, since we have little to no emotional investment in the characters, we never really care how things turn out. And unlike Allen's first time around with this subject matter, the actual soul-searching examination isn't as deep, thus leaving us with only a decently told drama that segues into a decently staged thriller, with a few "fun" surprises thrown in for good measure.

Like the main character's earlier, unseen foray in the world of tennis, the film works in an above average manner. But while it's clearly no cinematic double-fault, it's also no ace, let alone a Grand Slam. "Match Point" rates as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed January 2, 2006 / Posted January 6, 2006


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