Woody Allen serves a winning 'Match Point'

In Woody Allen's "Match Point," Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a hustling Irish tennis pro, insinuates himself into the British country club establishment by marrying Chloe (Emily Mortimer), the daughter of a prominent businessman, while pursuing an affair with his brother-in-law's red-hot fiancée, Nola (Scarlett Johansson). It is not a comedy, not even slightly.

Allen is so identified with New York City that whenever he ventures outside it to make a movie, it's headline news. "Match Point," his latest, was filmed in London (he's already filmed a second project there), but the reasons have more to do with artistic freedom than aesthetics. In an interview in the latest issue of "Written By," the Writer's Guild of America's magazine, Allen says, "I might work abroad a little bit unless I can find a situation in the United States where they'll let me make my movies the way I can make them."

In terms of its story there is no compelling reason why Allen could not have set "Match Point" in New York's Upper East Side (his neighborhood), but the change of scenery has done him some good. If the American studios are less amenable to Allen's cloistered, control-freak working methods these days, he seems to have made up for it: "Match Point" is his best film in some time, although it should be pointed out that it is his only good film in some time. Even "Match Point" suffers by comparison to its obvious predecessor, "Crimes and Misdemeanors," which explored similar moral issues more profoundly.

Still, the film is good enough that you don't feel the need for a few laughs to leaven the grimness. It's about the role that luck plays in determining fate.

At first, you wonder why Allen has chosen this particular story to play out his claims for the fickleness of fortune. After all, Chris is a master manipulator whose gamesmanship is even higher off the court than on. Even the people who are on to him, like Nola, are enthralled. He cons the con artists.

But Allen's point soon becomes clear: If someone like Chris can become waylaid by the vagaries of life, then it can happen to anyone. If he can get away with his treacheries, then where is justice? What links this film with "Crimes and Misdemeanors" is the idea that, without justice, there can be no meaning in the universe.

I don't mean to make all this sound more highfalutin than it is, although I could have done without the shot of Chris boning up on "Crime and Punishment." Dostoevsky, this ain't. Allen is foremost an entertainer, and he keeps the ruminations mostly to a minimum. But the existential pall shrouding this film is a bit much. It is possible, after all, to make a movie about fate and retribution and meaninglessness without having it seem quite so much like a demonstration, however artful, of a philosophical conundrum.

It helps that the film is shot in smooth, sensual tones. Chris's lustfulness irradiates the atmosphere. His scenes with Nola have a carnal shimmer that is new to Allen's movies, which are usually cold to the touch. Rhys-Meyers and Johansson work well together - they both know how to project glossiness and guile. The others actors, including Brian Cox as the businessman patriarch and Matthew Goode as his spoiled rich son, hit just the right note of desiccated good breeding. Allen himself remains off screen, which is fine with me. It would be too sordid watching him capering after the lovelies on those manicured lawns. Grade: B+

Rated R for some sexuality.

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