A field trip away from Woody World

Match Point

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, February 27, 2006


None of Woody Allen's three dozen movies has made more than 40 million dollars at the box office, and the last one to do that well was "Hannah and Her Sisters" two decades ago.

Yet Woody's reputation among film critics and Academy Award voters remains curiously exalted. His screenplay nomination for his new film, "Match Point," gives him 20 directing and screenwriting Oscar nods, putting him one past Billy Wilder ("Some Like It Hot" and a host of other movies more memorable than anything Woody has done) to make him, theoretically, the best auteur ever.

In reality, Woody is more like the Pete Rose of the movies -- not quite gifted enough to swing for the fences, but, due to a prodigious work ethic ("Eighty percent of success is showing up," he claims), has amassed a remarkable number of singles and quite a few doubles.

Lately, though, Woody has generated mostly strikeouts like last spring's "Melinda and Melinda," in which the only entertainment derived from the self-parody of casting big Will Ferrell as the Woody Allen Character.

Fortunately, "Match Point," while hardly the second coming of Ingmar Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock rolled into one as some critics have predictably enthused, is at least an infield single. If you chance upon it on TV someday, you probably won't recognize it as a Woody Allen movie (although a little pretentious philosophizing about the meaninglessness of the universe might give it away). Both Woody and the surplus celebrities who infest most of his films are missing from it. "Match Point" is neither a comedy nor one of Woody's unwatchable pseudo-Nordic gloomathons. Instead, it's a genre flick, a competently made if surprisingly generic erotic thriller in the tradition of 1985's "The Jagged Edge," complete with that oldest cliché of the format, the adulterous tennis pro.

Yet, knowing it's by Woody makes "Match Point" more likeable, because it's gratifying to see a 70-year-old legend industriously climb out of the ruts he's fallen into.

For example, ever since 1979's "Manhattan," umpteen of his movies have been set in Woody World -- that luminous alternate universe where New York culturati own showcase apartments, dally all afternoon in romantic tourist sites scoured of unsightly tourists, and never worry about the price of anything.

Carelessness about cost is an odd affectation for Woody's scripts, since he's famously stingy with his film's budgets and shooting schedules. Indeed, "Match Point" benefits from his having been forced to relocate to England to get tax break-assisted financing from the BBC.

Refreshingly, the film is explicitly about the cost of living in the London version of Woody World. A journeyman Irish tennis player with more cultivated preferences than he can afford (a rather unsympathetic Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) takes a poorly paid teaching job at a posh London club and moves into a tiny but dismayingly expensive flat.

One day, the pro mentions his love of opera to a rich student, played by newcomer Matthew Goode (who can elevate his eyebrows in the beguiling manner of William F. Buckley). The young toff invites his tennis teacher to Covent Garden to meet the family, who turn out to be swell swells, Woody's ideal of the polite WASP family that has always fascinated and troubled him. The sweet, cheerful sister (Emily Mortimer of "Bright Young Things") can't take her eyes off the brooding yet well-spoken athlete. Soon they are an item and her benevolent father, the founder of a securities firm in the City, puts his future son-in-law on the fast track to the executive suite.

Then, however, the social climber meets his brother-in-law's sultry fiancée, an untalented American actress from a family of beautiful losers (the irresistible Scarlett Johansson of "Lost in Translation"). Trouble slowly brews, finally unleashing several swift, well-plotted reversals of fortune.

Although "Match Point" is supposedly set in the present, Woody barely deigns to notice Tony Blair's vulgarized, multicultural, tabloid-dominated Cool Britannia. For this son of 1950s Brooklyn, there'll always be an England where the upper class sets the proper tone of cultural refinement and well-bred charm. The lack of satire in his portrayal of the kindly upper crust family and their stuffy but civilized milieu is telling. Like Ralph Lauren, Woody Allen is one of the few surviving pop cultural figures whose old-fashioned tastes gelled before the faux egalitarianism and resentful identity politics of the 1960s undermined the reign of the traditional elegance of the old Anglo-American Protestant elite.

Rated R for some sexuality.


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