Match Point

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Credit London, if you must, but the brilliance of Woody Allen's latest film comes from a source more significant than a change of locale.

Match Point differs from most of Allen's films not just because it wasn't shot in his beloved New York, but also because it's first and foremost an excellent story. Allen's critics happily blast him for narrowing his lens too finely on the quirks and neuroses of his characters, thus leaving his leading men to do half-assed impressions of the auteur himself.

Nobody wants to see Match Point star Jonathan Rhys Meyers doing Woody Allen, and thankfully we don't have to. Neurotic fumbling would have been wasted on the handsome young actor's visage, with his pouty lips and smoldering stare that has inspired young ladies to create gushing online fan sites.

By not relegating Rhys Meyers to a horde of anxious and obsessive New Yorkers, Allen allows the actor the space to create one of the best-played characters in what is easily the most compelling story in Allen's recent catalog of films.

Rhys Meyers plays Chris Wilton, a social climber whose lukewarm success as a pro tennis player prompts him to abandon the tour to give lessons at a posh English club. There he meets Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode) who takes an immediate liking to Chris and introduces him to his smart but all-too-chipper sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer).

Chris and Chloe become an item, and she gets him a post in her dad's business. It seems like Tom's on his way to getting the lifestyle he craves. Much of the beginning seems like a dull rehashing of every Merchant Ivory production about romantic clashes between snobs and yobs — until Chris meets Nola (Scarlett Johansson). Nola is Tom's American fiancee, whose failing acting career is the bane of the hoity Hewett parents.

From the first sly pass Chris makes at Nola (over a pingpong table, of all things), sparks fly.

This may be Allen's most sensual movie to date too. There's no comedy shared between Johansson and Rhys Meyers, but there is fully charged sexual energy, and we watch as their simmering lust explodes and then slowly implodes into near disaster. Chris' wife is desperate to get pregnant, his pregnant mistress is desperate to be his next wife — and the fallout leads him to murder.

Like the lives of ill-fated characters in the Dostoyevsky novels Chris reads, this crime will not go unpunished, no matter what the police find. But is his ultimate fate a result of his own actions, driven by a desire for wealth and women? Or is it luck?

In an opening scene, we watch a tennis ball volley over the net. We see the give, the take, the hit, the return and finally, the ball smacking the top of the net and shooting straight up. Allen freezes the frame and Chris delivers the driving question in the movie: When the ball falls on the opponent's side, is it just luck?

It's captivating to watch Chris' struggles with love, fate and lust play out, even though they do so with hardly any aid from Allen's generous comedic talents. Matter of fact, there's barely a chuckle to be had. Allen eschews many of the trademarks — his madcap, self-deprecating sense of humor, his obsession with shrinks and his hometown — that clutter his other recent films, which made them seem like caricatures of his earlier work. The trade-off is that Allen is left to focus on his other obsessions, such topics as adultery, fate, love and the upper class. He examines these pet themes through the lens of a great story, resulting in a film that's dark, weighty and refreshing.

Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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