The Death of the Actress, Again

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A coded re-imagining of his falling out with Mia Farrow, Woody Allen’s ludicrous and tasteless Match Point is the dullest, most repellant failure yet in Mr. Allen’s lengthy slide into the muck. Despite critical claims that the movie represents a departure, an improvement of some kind over the director’s dismal recent work, this new film emerges as typically Woody. At least, it’s typical Soon-Yi era Woody, which is to say typically stupid and boorish. In Match Point, Woody smears his misogynist fantasies and fetishes in our faces; he wallows in excruciatingly exhibitionist detail, yet he hasn’t shaken the visual clumsiness and appalling dialogue that have come to be the hallmarks of his post-Mia oeuvre.

You know it’s going to be a dud when, in the very first scene, Woody freezes the frame on a tennis ball, poised in mid-motion over a net, as the film’s protagonist (and Woody surrogate) prattles on pseudo-philosophically about luck, and whether the ball will go over or under the net. Right away, I felt embarrassed for Allen. The choice of shot told me he has no idea how pathetic his movies have become. It’s as bad a gesture as the “just like that” fast cut in the final frame of Melinda and Melinda, predictable in spite of rapidity.

Except for the performances of Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton, spot-on as upper crust Londoners, almost nothing feels sure about Allen’s direction. Cox, as the gallantly oafish patriarch of a wealthy clan, manages to squeak by with lines such as, “We should go riding in the morning. I’ve some lovely new horses,” or “He’s right, Eleanor. I think you’ve had one too many G & T’s.” Wilton, as his wife, has an especially good moment (in the drawing room, of course) when she digs her heels into the psyche of her son’s ostensibly lower-class American girlfriend, Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), a would-be actress who keeps bombing in auditions. Why pursue acting, the mother needles, if you aren’t getting anywhere?

The whole issue of Nola’s acting career Allen disingenuously skirts around. We’re never shown any of her unsuccessful tryouts for television commercials, but if a young woman were as attractive and as highly sexed as Johansson here presents herself, would she really be out of work from a lack of talent? Nola constantly vamps around men; when first we meet her, Nola spouts hard-boiled pitter-patter along the lines of, “You play a mean game, an aggressive game,” that sound as if she’d been boning up on James M. Cain novels. Are we to believe she’s never tried this ploy with casting directors? Nola’s efforts at acting are mere screenwriting on Allen’s part – they aren’t integral to Match Point as they were for Jennifer Tilly’s Olive in the detestable Bullets over Broadway, but both movies climax the same way, with the murder of an actress who’s inconvenient to her creator. Or her enabler.

For what Woody Allen has done is to make a stalker film in which the stalker is treated heroically, as a debonair somebody who has a certain lifestyle to maintain. Early on, we’re shown our anti-hero cozily curled up in bed reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Surely this isn’t Woody’s feeble concept of foreshadowing? Do the psychopathic pseudo-liberals in the audience, some of whom applauded one of the two shotgun murders near the end, require such diligent spoon-feeding?

matchpoint6Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, in the lead role of Chris Wilton, an ex-tennis pro who makes pious speeches about his own rise from humble origins (think of the Konigsbergs of Coney Island) and mouths condescendingly lofty folderol re “supporting the arts,” bears a not inconsiderable resemblance to Matt Damon. He has a chiseled, mask-like face and blunted sideburns. Woody plants visual suggestions of The Talented Mr. Ripley here and there in Match Point, but there’s no mistaking the drained volleys of an unrepentant old man for Minghella’s audacious, genuinely fearsome masterpiece. When Chris first wanders the well-appointed interior of the Hewett estate, the family into which he will marry, the light of awe and amazement in his eyes isn’t hard to miss. As in Ripley, opera plays a role, though here it’s La Traviata, not Eugene Onegin. Verdi arias swell on the soundtrack (no jazz in this movie), and a few scenes take place in or around the Hewett family box at the Royal Opera House. Remi Adefarasin’s undistinguished cinematography has, nonetheless, one good composition in the first of these visits: the gilded curve on the left of the frame reaches like an arm around the Hewetts and their guest, protecting them in their private world.

Mostly, Match Point is a bore. Woody’s attempts at comic relief are as amateurish as his shoveled-on positioning of Dostoevsky. No bride in the history of holy matrimony has ever said, at least not standing right there at the altar, “Just in time! I’m only beginning to show,” mere seconds after the parson has uttered, “You may kiss the bride.” But it happens here!

The sex scenes between Johansson and Rhys-Meyers are idiotic, wish fulfillment soft porn: Ripping each other’s shirts off, the golden chest under his striped button-downs, the heaving bosoms to which her wet blouse clings, she using his cravat to blindfold him, he drizzling oil down her naked back as snowdrifts picturesquely pile outside her bedroom window. Allen often films Johansson in close-up as she drags deeply on brown-tipped ciggies, doing her lungs a world of good. The fetishized screwing would be suspect enough, but Woody’s plot requires that Nola turn from an insouciant flirt to a needy neurotic – with no gradation whatsoever, and from there to a shrieking harridan, once she becomes pregnant. Johansson doesn’t have the dramatic capability to sketch in these contrived transitions. When Nola teases Chris in a bar by saying, “No one’s ever asked for their money back,” Johansson looks a bit like the playful young Meryl Streep. She relishes, as Streep would’ve, a good dirty line. Yet the line insinuates that Nola is a prostitute, something never substantiated in the character but corroborated in Allen’s attitudes toward women.

And then the death knell: Match Point lifts the Martin Landau-Anjelica Huston plot straight out of Crimes and Misdemeanors. Allen gives us a lurid variation on a scenario he once portrayed with humanity and restraint. Nola repeatedly shouts at Chris, “I want to talk to Chloe,” just as Anjelica Huston’s doomed mistress repeatedly demanded of her married lover, “I want to talk to Miriam!” Different wives, same dialogue. And Johansson’s overt overacting: “If you don’t do it, I’ll do it!” Allen reduces her to shouting and screaming, presumably to make those of us waiting it out in the dark hate her, or at least condition us, to justify in cinematic terms the physical violence to be directed at her. How dare she spoil Chris’s taste of the good life by insisting that he be a father to their unborn child?

It’s worth remembering that Kate Winslet was originally cast as Nola; she bowed out owing to the perfectly legitimate excuse of wanting to spend more time raising her family. Yet Winslet, an intelligent person, must have realized how degrading a role Nola is, how degrading Match Point is to women in general.

Late in the film Woody Allen stages a scene so vile, it seems inevitable that he’ll one day collaborate with Noah Baumbach. Chris perpetrates an obscene act against an innocent elderly woman, someone he had met briefly once before under an assumed name. This “poor” decent lad from Ireland – all he wanted was to play tennis, get rich, and “make a contribution”: when did Allen’s sensibility become so cheap? Chris sobs as he sits in the dead neighbor’s flat, a prelude to his gunning down Nola, moments later, in a similar fashion.

The ghost of the elderly lady subsequently calls on Chris: What about me? It’s the only question in the film worth answering, and Margaret Tyzack lends it a superlative line reading. Allen cuts from the ghost – the best edit in all 120-plus minutes of this trash – to a police detective waking from a dream with a theory about the crime. The juxtaposition felt like a move borrowed from Frenzy, hardly a Hitchcock worth emulating, yet for a couple of moments, voila, the thrill of promise.

The guiding force behind this confessional non-art is one of a guilty mind. Chris’s sobbing after the double murder, as he sits in the backseat of a taxi cab, en route to an evening at the theatre with the wife he doesn’t love, suggests Woody’s own contrition, well hidden from the public eye, for the disgraceful hash he made of his own family life nearly 15 years ago. Farrow’s accusations in 1992, once extraordinary, certainly grow in plausibility from year to year, from film to ever more awful film. – NPT

January 20, 2006

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