MATCH POINT (12/28/2005)
Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer

My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 76% Certified Fresh

PLOT: At a turning point in his life, a former tennis pro (Rhys Meyers) falls for an aspiring actress (Johansson) who happens to be engaged to his friend and soon-to-be brother-in-law.

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Watching “Match Point” is as exhilarating as any moviegoing experience I’ve ever had. It’s pure soap, much like its uncredited (but obvious) inspiration, 1951’s “A Place in the Sun” with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. But a crucial decision is made by the main character that shifts everything into darker territory more comparable to Hitchcock than George Stevens.

One of the best things about the film is the editing. It’s not a short film, clocking in at just over two hours, but everything feels pared down to the bare essentials. The passage of time is indicated in efficient pans or quick cuts. Unnecessary conversations are cut short. Winter changes to spring in a single fade. Allen is wasting no time in getting to the meat of the story, and it makes for a film that hurtles along breathlessly.

The performance by the lead, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, is also a key factor. Watching it again for the first time in quite a while, I was struck by how measured his deliveries were. There’s nothing wrong with it on a technical level, but it always feels like he’s acting or performing. Even when his character, Chris, interacts with his girlfriend who eventually becomes his fiancé, nothing he does feels REAL. It’s almost distracting, how THEATRICAL his performance is compared to everyone else’s. I was thinking, “Well, I guess Rhys Meyers is the best they could get to stay under budget.”

EXCEPT…when he meets Scarlett Johnasson’s character, Nola. Only then do his eyes and face reflect the lust in his words. They flirt fiercely for about a minute before they’re interrupted, but the damage is done. He’s hooked. And it’s at THAT point that I realized the “staginess” of his acting in previous scenes was intentional, because his character WAS acting. Chris is ALWAYS putting on a performance for everyone around him, except Nola. With Nola, we see the real Chris, the focused, hungry Chris who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.

It’s a brilliant layer to a brilliant film. Director Woody Allen has created a movie that starts out exactly like so many of his previous character-driven art-house films, so much so that we never suspect the surprises in store. For the score, he chose stock opera recordings, really OLD opera recordings that sound so scratchy I wonder if any of them were actually being played on the old Edison cylinder players. It’s the PERFECT topping. It creates a uniquely Allen-esque atmosphere that lulls us into the feeling that, well, I know where THIS is going.

But I assure you, you don’t.

Pay particularly close attention to the various discussions of luck peppered throughout the film. At multiple milestones in the film, luck plays a HUGE part, not always for the good. Are these plot conveniences? How many of our own lives are governed by luck, good or bad? An acquaintance of mine was recently killed in a wreck where a truck toppled onto him from a highway overpass. Another was killed because someone was driving at night with no headlights. Another friend contracted breast cancer, but is now in remission. I have two uncles who lost cancer battles. Yet another acquaintance, the daughter of a friend, beat childhood leukemia.

Luck is inextricably linked with our existence, to the degree that it’s a little frightening. We can bitch and moan about plot contrivances in movies and convenient phone calls and the rest, but if you step back, everything in existence is a contrivance: random meetings and phone calls and stoplights that keep us from hitting that pedestrian, and missed flights on airplanes that end up crashing, etcetera.

That’s REALLY what “Match Point” is drilling down to. Even without the backdrop of luck as a metaphysical discussion, the movie is an absolute top-notch thriller, one of the best of 2005, or any year, for that matter. But it’s that next level hanging in the background that makes it my favorite Woody Allen film.