a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

And with not one tennis metaphor

Match Point (Woody Allen) [B-]
Note: this review will, somewhat clumsily, employ the many variations on Woody Allen's Christian name, as he's one of the few filmmakers who can never be referred to by his surname, only because it sounds weird. That includes the NYT-approved "Mr. Allen" or the more traditional "Allen," even if that is his actual first name.

Me? I’m a “best since Sweet and Lowdown” guy, though I vastly prefer that Django-era jazz pic to this, the solid if familiar quasi-thriller that has people other than the French once again speaking highly of the Woodman. Most of the hype, as you’ve no doubt heard pundited endlessly, has to do with some very dramatic timing: few filmmakers have so thoroughly bulldozered their reputation in a way Woody has over the last five years. (I know he always goes through valleys, particularly in the Bergman-heavy late-’80s, but it’s a mere two years from Radio Days to Crimes and Misdemeanors, and only two Interesting Failures from Manhattan to Zelig.) If he has to rush over to Britain, get seduced by a new starlet, and rework the Martin Landau section of Crimes and Misdemeanors to get his groove back, so be it.

As it would happen, the trick has largely paid-off. The crowded scenes of ambient chatter have a different, unforced feel from the stilted counterparts in past years, while he seems willing to dolly and pan in ways that seem profoundly un-Woody. In other words, he seems to be trying something new on for size, even if it turns out, as has been suspected, that he merely crossed the Atlantic with an already-completed script in tow, hoping some accents would spice it up. The film, no matter how glacially paced and occasionally redundant, feels controlled by a steady hand, and that earns the film a lot of goodwill, only a respectable amount of which is squandered by film’s end.

It's too bad most of the naysayers seem to be distracted by its (scant) meditations on luck, since apart from the opening bit and the final twist, that isn’t really the Woodster’s chief concern. But class is. Make no mistake: Woody loathes these Britishers through and through, from the blissfully unaware Hewett family to those, like our barely formed protagonist, who aspire to be amongst them, if not exactly one of them. To a jarringly de-Bowie-ized Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, they represent a cordoned-off coziness which is passably constricting, a middlebrow taste and lack of intellectual gamemanship he can tolerate and not much else. But Woody is less forgiving, never outright condemning them but perterbed by their love for “G & Ts” and Andrew Lloyd Webber and Motorcycle Diaries. (Rarely has a film’s title on a marquee been held for so long.) He never once tries to make their livelihood look inviting -- it’s simply comfortable, if in a lazy kind of way, but still powerful enough to expel any member, such as Scarlett Johansson, who proves an increasing headache.

But Woody’s not with her much, either; in fact, he’s not much with anyone. I can't be sure what caused it, but Woody’s finally arrived at a pitiless but faintly amused view of humanity that’s not too far removed (maybe even borrowed?) from Shohei Imamura. It makes sense. Over the years, he’s grown more misanthropic with not just the human race, but also (maybe even more pointedly) with his reputation. This bitter feeling imploded in Anything Else, a fascinating -- but, sadly, nearly anti-entertaining, and not in a good way -- salvo that suggested, among other things, that any young-’un (especially someone like Jason Biggs) who tries to model themself after him is deluded and should promptly head for L.A.. After some more waffling (with the schizo Melinda and Melinda), he’s finally arrived at the clinical tone on display here, and it fits surprisingly well.

So why the low grade? Because many of the same problems still remain: the misogyny that casts women as either harpies, sweet dopes, or solipsistic nutcases; his belief that he’s deep when he really winds up settling on pat conclusions (however dark they can be); a feeling of rehashing, a familiar one in Woody's career; a sporadic tendency (a lot better here) to stage scenes so they look like awful off-off-Broadway plays inexplicably cast with talented people (James Nesbitt and Ewen Bremner’s dialogue together, especially); dialogue and whole scenes that can be way, way, way too literal. The after hours scene in the kitchen towards the end is a prime example of the latter, though you could always say that Rhys-Meyers is in fact just lying to himself, trying to graft logic on a situation that won't have it. That’s one of Woody’s best tricks: providing you with blatant symbolism, only to turn it on its head. The best example is in -- whaddaya know? -- Crimes and Misdemeanors, with Sam Waterston’s blind rabbi: is his character meant to symbolize the world shutting out god or god growing blind to the real world? (Discuss.)

But the one here ain't bad either. (Finally, here be Spoilers.) When the ring hits the rails and falls the other way -- echoing the opening shot and bringing us back to the luck theme -- the audience let out a collective gasp. The audience thinks, of course, “there’s a piece of incriminating evidence -- but, really, who’s going to find it?” We go from a feeling of dread to a feeling of elation when it winds up falsely clearing him of the crime, and then -- here’s the brilliant part -- back to dread again, because we realize how much Rhys-Meyers means it when he tells the inspectors he’d like to see justice be carried out, i.e., him being hauled off to jail. Instead, he’ll live a life a) wracked with guilt and b) stuck with the actively dull Hewetts. So much for good luck.

It’s not earth-shattering, but it does, unlike many of Woody’s pseudo-profound endings, actually stick in the gut, no less because Rhys-Meyers, who’s never entirely human, is also never entirely likeable. Moreover, there's the simple (and unstressed) fact that Rhys-Meyers never finds out about the way he got off, how close he came to getting caught. It's unnerving. But even more than that, Match Point encourages that feeling again: the one of seeing “The New Woody Allen” in a theater packed with an enthusiastic crowd, everyone stoked for anxious zingers and Nuremberg jokes, the lot of us hunkering down and ready to hear what the Woodman has to say this year. Not since 1999...

Random notes that didn’t fit into the review proper that I am listing here, all willy-nilly:
* The whole crime sequence -- from genesis to just afterwards -- is some of the best work in Woody’s career. And by that I mean it’s wholly unlike Woody, and yet his attention to detail, real-time events and an opera soundtrack give it a unique edge. It's one of the year's most thrilling set pieces, and the crime scene scene, with its heavy reliance on handheld, is probably the most immediate work of his career.
* Of course Woody would mostly use old opera pieces.
* In praise of mediocrity: Matthew Goode exclaiming, "To hell with her -- Motorcycle Diaries!"
* Dig that Woody cast two of the League of Gentlemen -- Mark Gatiss and Steve Pemberton -- but, suspicously, not Reece Shearsmith. Did he make the cutting room floor? Or was it just serendipitous small-role casting?
* In my opinion, Emily Mortimer mops the floor with Scarlett Johansson. But then, Mortimer doesn't get to get drunk and throw fits. (Also, remember when Kate Winslet was supposed to star? Try to imagine her in the Nola role. She would've made the film ten times more interesting.)


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