Or perhaps he has been lobotomized. Or drugged.
Whatever has happened to him, it’s all for the good.
Match Point is the best movie he has made in more than a decade, maybe even stretching back to 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, his movie that most closely resembles this upside-down drama of moral consequences, or lack thereof.
Although Match Point examines cosmic themes that have occupied Allen throughout his career, this movie is so unlike the others in his overstuffed resume that you’d never guess it was a Woody Allen movie. (Which, for many viewers, will come as a relief.)
Filmed entirely in England (already a departure from Allen’s upper-class Manhattan), and without any of the actors straining to channel Allen’s stammering comic delivery, Match Point stars Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Chris Wilton, a pleasant-seeming tennis pro with higher social and financial aspirations.
Chris plays a smart game. But tennis – and life – depends on more than skill, practice and strategy. It also requires luck, which in Allen’s universe isn’t a thing of mysticism. A sudden, unexpected wind can turn a fine serve into a net ball. Match Point is about the various ways that ball gets nudged over the net.
When the genteel Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode) takes Chris under his wing, it opens up a whole new world of upward mobility. Tom’s sweet, persistent sister (the excellent Emily Mortimer) takes a fancy to Chris, as do Tom’s generous parents.
The good life awaits Chris. Unfortunately, he takes a fancy to Tom’s fiancee, a sultry American actress (Scarlett Johansson). Luck is influenced by personal choice and, as often happens in Allen’s movies (and his personal life), the heart (or libido) wants what it wants.
The movie takes unexpected turns – well, not unexpected if you’ve seen A Place in the Sun, an obvious inspiration. But, for once, Allen isn’t condoning bad behavior, not even by using humor to take the edge off. He’s exploring the philosophical boundaries of his atheism – if divine justice isn’t a factor, if the ball doesn’t always clear the net in the direction you intended, what, if any, are the moral consequences?
In Allen’s early career, he made fabulous, silly comedies, feather-light romances and dreary, pretentious dramas. He complained that fans wanted to keep him straitjacketed, not allowing him to stretch into the weighty, serious stuff that was on his mind.
But that’s not true, and Match Point proves it.
What fans want are good movies. This one isn’t particularly funny or romantic, but it’s gripping and tragic. It asks some nasty, yet profound, questions about human desire and behavior.
In the final analysis of Allen’s career, it may turn out that moral ambiguity, not comedy, was what he did best.