- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 5, 2006

“Match Point” finds Woody Allen quaintly and often ludicrously overmatched while exchanging New York for London and wedded to the conventions of unsavory, moth-eaten crime fiction. Strictly a writer-director on this occasion, Mr. Allen conceals a sense of humor and melodramatic judgment while observing the devious behavior of a ruthless young fortune hunter called Chris Wilton, portrayed with scant disarming flair by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers.

Chris is a former tennis pro who swiftly benefits from a coaching job at a posh country club when befriended by a genial young aristocrat named Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode). This connection leads Chris to courtship and matrimony with Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) and an executive job with father-in-law Alec (Brian Cox), a trusting tycoon and philanthropist.

The source of trouble in this enviable setup is Tom’s fiancee, Nola (Scarlett Johansson), an aspiring actress from Colorado who arouses the animal in scheming Chris. She becomes his furtive mistress some time after he has married and she has alienated Tom, who weds a social equal on the rebound. Nola the vamp and Chris the sneak have already been rash enough to steal a rain-drenched grope in a wheat field at the Hewett estate. This occurs soon after a smoldering first encounter in the game room. Their portentous introduction inspires some hilarious innuendo, probably more appropriate for a parody of “Double Indemnity.”

Chris: “What’s a beautiful American ping-pong player doing mingling among the British upper class?”

Nola: “Did anyone ever tell you you play a very aggressive game?”

Chris: “Did anyone ever tell you you have very sensual lips?”

Despite the promising comic overtones, Mr. Allen elects to simulate a straight face about the consequences of lust between social climbers prone to abuse the hospitality of wealthy patrons. Chris begins neglecting duties at the office, where his credentials consist of telephonic brushoffs such as “You’ll have a draft by Friday.” Not likely, considering the frequency with which he spends afternoons consorting with Nola after she returns to London, whose theater world keeps failing to appreciate her deep-throated and heavy-breasted allure.

Mr. Allen draws attention to Chris’ failure to impregnate Chloe in a timely fashion, making it absurdly predictable that Nola is going to be pregnant within a handful of episodes. The deceiver’s double life becomes untenable once an impatient and demanding Nola begins insisting that Chris choose between her and the Hewetts. He formulates a plan to murder Nola before she sabotages his privileges.

It’s not as if Woody Allen had never finessed a murder plot. He demonstrated aptitude of this sort in a farcical vein when reuniting with Diane Keaton in “Manhattan Murder Mystery” and in seriocomic style while sustaining “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Bullets Over Broadway.” In targeting Nola for homicide, he’s even echoing the fates reserved for the Anjelica Huston character in “Crimes” and the Jennifer Tilly character in “Bullets.” Like Miss Tilly, Scarlett Johansson is also cast as a bimbo actress, although one sorely lacking in comic gusto.

What eludes Mr. Allen in the ominously deluxe context of “Match Point” is a self-protective humorous outlook. It’s as if he deliberately set out to imitate a genre that didn’t suit him, perhaps out of an ill-placed deference similar to his misbegotten evocations of Federico Fellini in “Stardust Memories,” Ingmar Bergman in “Interiors” and Anton Chekhov in “September.” Now he tries to channel a tradition of crime fiction whose cliches cannot be dissociated from class infatuation. As the camera tours fashionable London or prowls around the Hewett estate, you get the impression that Woody Allen is more seriously enamored and compromised than Chris Wilton, whose sins never justify serious interest.

* 1/2

TITLE: “Match Point”

RATING: R (Occasional sexual candor and violence)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Woody Allen. Cinematography by Remi Adefarasin. Production design by Jim Clay. Costume design by Jill Taylor.

RUNNING TIME: 124 minutes

WEB SITE: www.DreamWorks.

com/MatchPoint

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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