The hype is technically true: Match Point is Woody Allen's best movie in years. But only because he's already had practice making it.
About two-thirds of the way through the Woodman's "comeback," we're overcome by a feeling that we've seen him do this all before, and better. Until then, the film stands on its own as a decent cocktail drama. Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a tennis pro of humble origins, lands a job at a posh London club and is swept into the ranks of the social elite. The hoity-toity Hewett clan takes an indulgent shine to him, inviting him to family functions and praising his up-by-the-bootstraps initiative. But his integration into their circle is largely due to the more direct affections of their daughter, Chloe (Emily Mortimer), who sees in Chris' icy good looks the projection of her innocent romantic yearnings. Chloe is trusting, emotionally open and adamant that life is good. In a Woody Allen picture, this makes the chances strong that she will be squashed like a bug.
Chris and Chloe are headed toward the altar, but not before he trips over a piece of forbidden fruit. That's Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), the American girlfriend of Chris' brother-in-law-to-be. Her defining attributes are a rootless vulnerability and a stop-traffic sexuality of which she is completely conscious. Such qualities make the role a perfect one for Johansson; in Allen's cosmology, they also ensure that the windscreen of destiny is about to claim another victim. (Is there any type of woman this guy doesn't have it in for?)
Chris and Nola give in to temptation: The heart wants what the heart wants, as do several other parts. What happens then is a sudden tumble into pseudo-Hitchcockian suspense that's dismayingly identical to a key development in one of Allen's earlier, far superior films. Michael Atkinson, writing in The Village Voice, bemoaned the lift but graciously declined to cite its exact source a laudable example of a reviewer doing his utmost to resist the siren song of spoilerism.
It's Crimes and Misdemeanors. Not only that, but it's a single plotline from Crimes and Misdemeanors, elevated to the level of sole agenda and with Rhys-Meyers in the place of Martin Landau. To find that an acceptable substitution, you'll have to have watched Velvet Goldmine A LOT.
Still, Match Point isn't a bad film. It's mildly entertaining despite its schizophrenia, and if your Allen appreciation began with Deconstructing Harry, you may even find it gripping. The rest of us have to content ourselves with lesser discoveries, like learning that a properly melodramatic climax can actually move Rhys-Meyers to alter his facial expression. (Can't always count on that happening.) What's saddest is receiving confirmation that the only way for Allen to crawl back to mediocrity is to remake one of his greatest hits. We always suspected it to be true, but did he have to go and give us proof?