Double Fault

Woody Allen's Match Point can't return serve.

Scarlett Johansson: Sex kitten with a screech.
Scarlett Johansson: Sex kitten with a screech.
The critical consensus has Match Point as Woody Allen's finest film since . . . oh, let's see . . . Bullets Over Broadway, is it? Or perhaps Deconstructing Harry? Or maybe Sweet and Lowdown? One forgets where the good stuff left off, because there's been so much bad stuff since. It's not difficult to understand the accolades and affection slathered on Match Point: It resembles one of Allen's very best movies, 1989's Crimes and Misdemeanors, down to its plot point in which Martin Landau's affair with Anjelica Huston leads an unlikely suspect to do very bad things in order to protect his secret. Indeed, Allen's venture as film writer and director feels like a remake of its predecessor, stripped of Crimes and Misdemeanors' comedic detour, the Woody-Allen-Mia-Farrow-Alan-Alda romantic triangle, of which Allen has never been terribly fond. As he told Entertainment Weekly recently: "I so regretted that I had my story in there. I thought, My God, if I had made this film just about Marty and his predicament, it would have been so much of a better movie. As soon as I put myself in the picture, I felt that it ratcheted down in substance instantly."

Consider Match Point -- bereft of those hoary old jazz standards on the soundtrack and a single intentional laugh -- Allen's straight-faced do-over, his respectable, somber, veddy English attempt at making right a movie done well the first time. Of course, Allen shouldn't be condemned for revisiting familiar themes or retracing familiar territory (he, like that other bespectacled auteur Elvis Costello, is nothing without his twin obsessions of lust and guilt) -- only for doing so in spectacularly dull fashion. Match Point may well be a return to form, but only for those who love September and Interiors, movies populated by Bergman evacuees too inert and dreary to even crack a smile. And -- though it should go without saying -- Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Scarlett Johansson are no Martin Landau and Anjelica Huston. Hard to believe they're even in the same profession -- especially Johansson, who has never seemed more adrift than she is here, playing a sex kitten with a screech.

Rhys Meyers, as former tennis pro Chris Wilton, who washes up teaching the idle rich at a posh English country club, is supposed to be . . . what, precisely, we have little idea. At first he seems like one of those bland, blank guys whose lives are guided by good fortune; he's an accidental tourist who keeps winding up in the right place at the right time. One of his first pupils is a handsome young man named Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), who has a wealthy, powerful father (Brian Cox); a smart, beautiful sister (Emily Mortimer); and a box at the opera, which Chris claims to love. And so, within no time, Chris is whisked into the family as prospective son-in-law and employee -- two positions he claims that he's reluctant to inherit, though we suspect otherwise, if only because Allen sets up Tom, not his sister Chloe, as the real object of Chris' affection. (In one scene, Chris is wearing exactly the same shirt as Tom; it's perhaps the only real joke in the movie.)

But Allen's too conventional to proffer any real moments of homoerotic attraction; he'd probably blanch and stutter at the mere suggestion that Chris just wants to get into Tom's tennis shorts. So he offers instead the obvious alternative: Nola (Johansson), Tom's American fiancée and an actress with but a single commercial to her credit. Allen wastes no time in cutting to the chase: When Chris first meets Nola, over a ping-pong table in the Hewett home, he all but clobbers her with the racket and drags her off to his shabby flat. Up to this moment, Allen's given us no clue at all that Chris plays such "an aggressive game," as Nola puts it, but suddenly he's grabbing and groping her -- without knowing who she is or why she's in her new friend's home. Allen just means to throw us off the scent of the Chris-Tom relationship; why would he want him when he can have her?

And so they begin a torrid affair, which commences in the countryside beneath a downpour, no less; if it's not exactly operatic, it's definitely soap-operatic. But their roles reverse over time: Chris wants Nola when she doesn't want him, then wants nothing to do with her once she wants only him and threatens to tell Chloe. Needless to say, we have been here before, 16 long years ago. But where Crimes and Misdemeanors offered trenchant discussions of decency and morality versus those tethered to the "mumbo jumbo" of faith, Match Point is far more facile and hollow. It's obsessed only with luck and the slight separation between the good bounce and the bad one -- and maybe that's the joke right there. Maybe this is a comedy after all, because after all these years and all these movies and all this life, the best Allen can come up with now is a movie about how nothing means anything unless the ball just happens to fall your way. It's almost laughable.