2006-01-20 / Columnists

‘Matchpoint’ – Woody Gets Serious

Comedian/filmmaker Woody Allen once said, “If you do comedy, they put you at the baby table.” The “they” are critics and Hollywood powers that be who rarely take comedy seriously in terms of art.

With “Match Point,” Allen is making a mad dash to the adults’ table by making a drama that is determinedly devoid of humor. In fact, it draws from the plot of the unfunny “An American Tragedy” by Theodore Dreiser, which became the 1951 George Stevens Oscar-winner, “A Place in the Sun,” featuring Montgomery Clift, Shelley Winters and a hot young Elizabeth Taylor.

In Allen’s version, the scene is upper class England and the struggling lower class Clift character is played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers as missing-the-big-time tennis pro Chris Wilton, who takes a job at an elusive country club teaching the privileged.

Allen does a flip on the Taylor/Winters roles by having the breathtakingly beautiful temptress be the poor one (Scarlett Johansson) and the plain Jane be the rich girl (Emily Mortimer). Chris buddies up to one of his pampered students, Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), and is introduced to his sister, the nice, but mousey Chloe (Mortimer). Sis has eyes for Chris and before long, they are an item and her fat cat father, Alec (Brian Cox), has given the tennis pro a job in “one of his companies.”

However, Chris takes one look at Tom’s fiancee, Nola (Johansson), and lust for the ever-auditioning American actress overrides all logic. Chris soon finds himself married to Emily and in trouble with Nola, who he’s gotten pregnant.

What to do?

Early in the film, Chris remarks that he’d “rather be lucky than good,” as a slow-motion tennis ball bounces straight up off the center net leaving fate (or luck) to decide who’ll win the match point. This is Chris’s philosophy of life (and apparently Allen’s as well). It offers the strange justification for the protagonist’s reprehensible solution to his female problem.

In other words, through sheer luck, he gets away with murder. Even a nocturnal visit from a couple of ghosts can’t give him any guilt. That is Allen’s biggest twist on “A Place in the Sun,” which ends as an American tragedy for its leading man. The filmmaker is saying that evil will win if luck is on its side. That may be true, but it’s unsatisfying dramatically.

“Match Point” is an interesting exercise for Allen, but hopefully, he will go back to the “childlike” world of comedy and give us some satisfaction.

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