Woody Allen films have conveniently fallen into one of two categories — the humorous, character-driven, self-mocking comedies and the serious, character-driven, life-mocking dramas.  Only a few have achieved an adroit balance of both, and those have come to be his greatest films: Oscar-winners Annie Hall and Hannah and her Sisters.  His latest film, Match Point, joins those two films in the upper tier of Mr. Allen’s cinematic repertoire and is one of the best films of 2005.

Match Point’s theme centers on the belief that luck plays an important role in life and one never knows which way that luck will go — good or bad.  The key to this film’s success lies with the excellent cast — smartly deprived of the tried and true neurotic Woody — who play off each other like a tightly choreographed Gilbert & Sullivan operetta directed by Ingmar Bergman.  Leading the cast is a subdued but chillingly charming performance by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (Bend It Like Beckham) as one-time tennis pro Chris Wilton, who by shear luck enters the world of London’s upper crust by letting the daughter of a wealthy industrialist fall in love with him.  The genius of the character, from both a written and performance standpoint, is the fact that Chris doesn’t intentionally try to weasel into a better life — it just happens, and he actually falls in love with the daughter, Chloe.  The only obstacle to Chris’ lucky situation comes in the form of a voluptuous American actress named Nola (Scarlett Johansson), the fiancée of Chloe’s brother Tom (Matthew Goode), who was the first to befriend Chris while seeking tennis lessons.  Nola neither tries to encourage Chris’ lust for her nor tries perpetuate what becomes an unfortunate affair.  

Match Point could have easily turned into a melodramatic family soap opera in the hands of a lesser-experienced writer-director, but Mr. Allen so deftly lets his actors naturally unfold the characters’ lives within the context of the story that it all feels organic and believable.  But what elevates this film isn’t the Greek tragedy you’re expecting but a right turn during the end of the second act that takes the film in a whole other direction.  Without spilling the beans, I can say it is quite thrilling.

Johansson is sexy and vulnerable, sad and hopeful, all at once but without outshining the rest of the cast.  Goode, while taking a bit of Hugh Grant and a touch of Rupert Everett, gives a vision of a 21st-century British rich kid who you wouldn’t mind being your best friend.  Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton play the parents like a privileged-class Stiller and Meara, with subtly amusing exchanges providing just the right amount of comic relief.  Chloe is the clueless plain Jane who can’t believe she snagged the cute jock, but the way Emily Mortimer plays her, you never feel sorrow or envy towards the character. The best kudos go to Rhys-Meyers who plays Chris like a poor kid in a candy store who can’t believe he’s surrounded by goodies but also can’t quite enjoy them until he’s told he’s allowed to indulge himself.

Mr. Allen deserves a lot of credit for writing a superb screenplay full of pathos, charm, and tragedy and is one of the few films of 2005 to make you ponder the particulars of life in a very engaging manner.  Match Point is one of the year’s best mature films, combining drama and humor elements in a simple but unique way.  Match Point is in theaters now.

Rich Burlingham

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