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Match Point

(2005) ** 1/2 Pg-13
124 min. DreamWorks Pictures. Director: Woody Allen. Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Emily Mortimer, Matthew Goode, Brian Cox.

Woody Allen's Match Point is being heralded as the writer-director's return to form, but it's less interesting and less lively than most of his so-called "bad" pictures of the last decade. A rote exploration of luck, infidelity, and murder, Match Point has precious little of consequence to say, but says it in a tragically pretty way.

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers plays Chris, a young tennis pro who once had the good fortune to pull himself out of poverty. At his tony country club job, Irish-born Chris gets a taste of London's upper class when he insinuates himself with cheery client Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode) and his family (presided over by Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton). Tom's sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) starts to look like the perfect "set-up," so Chris ponders marrying himself into a yet better life. But the grass continues to be greener on the other side of his fence—Chris' convenient but lukewarm relationship with Chloe pales when he meets Nola (Scarlett Johansson), a sensual struggling actress frustratingly engaged to Tom.

Romantic complications turn to moral questioning and variations on the existential angst Allen has explored over his thirtysomething years in film. To Allen the universe itself is a lucky accident, without design. All we have is our own moral choice, or lack thereof, which is all well and good except for the fact that Allen made the last word on the subject with the superior Crimes and Misdemeanors. In an Allen comedy, one thematic idea is enough: Allen filigrees it with punchlines and a gaggle of diverting characters. Heck, he even develops it. But this time, the jokes are gone. And unlike the hard-working, Bergman-inspired Interiors, September, and Another Woman, Match Point is finally the kind of toss-off for which everyone always accuses annual filmmaker Allen.

Though the visuals and acting are reasonably accomplished, Match Point is sedate and a bit stilted. Chris is the only credibly rounded character, a lucky bastard who Allen depicts reading Crime and Punishment (with study guide at side). He learns nothing from it, of course, leading to the film's only punchline. "Okay, okay," Chris groans. "I'll do the right thing." The promise is disingenuous, as Chris proves indifferent to any news (earthquakes, new planets) not relevant to his small sphere. The sleek Rhys-Meyers proves perfectly cast as a social climber with sweaty palms and an amoral core; as the hardscrabble gal who captivates Chris, Johansson gives another smoky, drowsy performance, good enough for neo-noir.

Allen's economically motivated move to London has little artistic effect, but—along with an operatic score fit for a moral tragedy—seems to have snowed most of the major critics into bleating "Masterpiece!" In an unintentionally humorous moment, Allen stages hot sex in the English rain, promptly followed by the intentionally humorous juxtaposition of Chris sitting through a business-school class, the dull life into which he's about to buy. In the end, Match Point amounts to little more than an austere and extremely prolonged episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

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