Whenever I think about Woody Allen and his leading ladies, I recall Matthew McConaughey's mellow, aging sleazebag from Dazed and Confused. As he explains why he loves high school girls, he grins, "I get older, they stay the same age."
In Match Point, Scarlett Johansson provides the latest exhibit of the regression in age of Allen's actresses: At 21, she's roughly a half-century younger than Allen himself. But she also reveals Allen's effectiveness as a filmmaking mentor. Playing a kittenish but self-destructive would-be thespian, Johansson creates the most darkly complex character of her career so far.
Johansson can count herself lucky to be starring in Allen's finest film in years. Not that Match Point lives up to Allen's masterpieces like Annie Hall or Manhattan. By swapping his trademark New York locales for London and ridding the film of neurotic wisecrackers, Allen breaks his recent streak of pointless comedies and constipated dramas. Match Point emerges as the best "pure" drama of Allen's career, but his portrait of a mercenary tennis pro has both aces and faults.
Tennis champ Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), realizing he's never going to be another Andre Agassi, takes a job at a tony London country club that would never accept him as a member. He falls into an easy friendship with wealthy Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), whose supportive family practically thrusts Chris into the arms of Tom's clingy sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer).
With looks ready for a glossy magazine ad, Rhys-Meyers has a sinister, intentionally closed-off quality, as if he's ready to snake into another version of The Talented Mr. Ripley. Early on, he makes a show of paying his own way and rebuffing charity, but you suspect he's always calculating his new friends' net worth and wondering how to further insinuate himself. If he marries Chloe, her family will set him up with a cushy job and extravagant lifestyle, but Chris also covets Tom's fiancee, Nola (Johansson), and plays with fire by pursuing the other woman.
In her seductive scenes, Johansson enticingly tilts her valentine-shaped face at come-hither angles, but when Nola touches on her difficult past or stalled acting career, she turns bitter and evasive, as if she only has confidence in her effect on men. An affair with Nola features lotions and sex in rainstorms, but also involves taking on Nola's increasingly heavy emotional baggage. When Chris begins deceiving both women in his life, he contemplates unspeakable actions to resolve his dilemma.
The film's climactic plot points and notions of life defined by blind chance feel recycled from the Martin Landau half of Crimes and Misdemeanors. It's hard to shake Match Point's derivative qualities, as if it's a second pass at a tale Allen told perfectly well the first time. Match Point, however, serves as a kind of breakthrough film by finally finding a story and a tone that suits Allen's serious ambitions. Allen's dramas typically contain not the barest hint of humor and feel like inhuman, intellectual exercises. Where his mature comedies like Hannah and Her Sisters celebrate life's abundance -- of feelings, personalities, creativity, the pleasures of New York -- his serious efforts feel constricted to the point of paralysis.
Match Point adjusts that stilted airlessness to an icily clinical tone -- a short leap, but a significant one that perfectly suits the antihero's point of view. If there's a distance between Match Point's audience and its characters, it reflects Chris' moral shortcomings instead of Allen's limitations. The level pace -- seldom achieving emotional highs or lows -- sets Chris on a trajectory that makes his monstrous choices seem inevitable. Match Point becomes a film noir in London's most tasteful districts.
Allen seems aware that Match Point has shaken him out of a creative rut, and his next film, Scoop, also involves Johansson's romantic misadventures in London. For once, audiences can look to the next Woody Allen film with eager anticipation, not dutiful resignation. Johansson promises to serve as a superb muse for Allen. But when she enters her mid-20s, will Woody consider her past her prime?