Monday, November 26, 2012

Cinema 2005: Group portrait with evil

Woody Allen's "Match Point" from 2005 offers breathtaking views of London and the country estates of its super rich, but the movie itself remains a dark tale of the moral bankruptcy of contemporary affluent society.

A washed-up professional tennis player, Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), has chucked the Grand Slam circuit in favor of the "big fish in a little pond" lifestyle of a tennis pro at a series of posh resorts. At the story's beginning he sits knees together, an apparently obeisant supplicant in a job interview for a spot at an exclusive London country club. His subdued appearance betrays no vestige of the alpha-male pro athlete.

Chris gets the job and befriends a wealthy young member, Tom Hewrtt (Matthew Goode). Soon Chris is enjoying nights at the opera and weekends at the Hewett family's bucolic country estate, where shooting clay pigeons and drinking are the preferred activities. Tom's sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer), who is portrayed as sweet and singularly awkward among this high-class race of smooth operators, falls for the former tennis star, who accepts her attentions with the same polite enthusiasm he displays for opera tickets. He beds her in his shabby London flat, where he otherwise spends his time reading Dostoevsky and listening to "serious music," as if exposure to high culture could inoculate him against his baser origins.

When he meets Tom's serious squeeze Nola (Scarlett Johansson), Chris immediately shows signs of ruthless desire, revealing his truer, primitive self. Nola is an American from a broken home, an aspiring actress specializing in lousy auditions, and like Chris, who came from Irish poverty, she is out of place in the drawing rooms of the rich Brits. Eventually, when even a downpour fails to drown the animal attraction between them, Chris and Nola have a roll in the alfalfa.

The Hewitts and their hangers-on seem to glide through their conspicuously consumptive lives. But for Nola and Chris, both born sans silver spoon, the sojourn among those rich dawdlers threatens to be a fleeting proposition.

Chris punches his own ticket by marrying Chloe, taking a job in her father’s business and climbing the corporate ladder, buoyed by his father-in-law’s imprimatur and a natural facility for bossing secretaries and abusing expense accounts. Still, newlywed Chris is determined to have his cheesecake and eat it, too, and he pursues Nola, who has been dumped by Tom in favor of a blue-blooded bride.

The pressures, which Chris’s clandestine affair inflicts on this working-class parvenu in the rarefied air of London's highest social strata, bring him to the verge of a crack up. Now the pace of the film accelerates, as we watch Chris’s high society shell hatch a heinous Mr. Hyde in order to untrammel his illicit romance. Later Chris has a good cry and slips back into the routine of his well paid sinecure and saccharine family life.

The police procedural scenes near the film’s end are truly the saddest of the movie, now that the dreamy lifestyle has been destroyed. The submissive attitude Chris assumes vis-à-vis London’s finest is reminiscent of his job interview at the movie’s beginning. We wonder if Chris’s lucky streak will hold.

The snappy jazz soundtracks that have been an Allen staple are replaced in “Match Point” by an elegiac operatic score which takes on an additional dimension as the story unfolds.

Woody Allen never appears in front of the camera in “Match Point,” but his screenplay earned the prolific writer/director a 2006 Oscar nomination. Also absent here is Allen’s signature intellectual dialog. When Chris and his in-laws come together, it is whisky, not wit, which sets their tongues wagging.

At the film’s end, the happy Hewetts celebrate their family’s newest arrival: Chloe’s and Chris’s baby. Floor-to-ceiling windows fill the couple’s flat with glorious ambient light and provide a spectacular view of London and the Thames. Through this happy diarama, one somber figure shuffles: Chris, dressed in a dark suit, is like an inexpiable sin on the soul of this high society.

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