If he'd used a pseudonym, you'd never have believed who actually wrote and directed the tense and relentless Match Point (which opens Friday, Jan. 20, at the Neptune and other theaters). It's set in London. It involves sports. People speak with posh accents quite foreign to New York. There's a murder and a police investigation. At first glance, nothing about it would seem to fit with the neurotic, self-obsessed canon of Woody Allen. Yet there are echoes of Crimes and Misdemeanors and Hannah & Her Sisters: He's always been interested in infidelity and its fateful consequences. Only here he's not working toward a comic resolution.
Allen's explicit theme, repeated often, is luck; and his hero is an Irish tennis pro, Chris (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), who understands with the fatalism of a true athlete that, whether the ball falls on one side of the net or the other, it will determine your life. One way, you're a champ. The other, you're a club instructor eager to impress a rich, well-born student, Tom (Matthew Goode), with your knowledge of opera and your self-studious urge to better yourself and move up in society. In a more traditional Allen movie, Chris would be the bridge-and-tunnel guy trying to make the leap to Manhattan.
And leap Chris does. He becomes pals with Tom, who hooks him up with his sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer). Pretty soon they're going steady, which pleases her parents more than Tom's choice of girlfriend: struggling American actress Nola (Scarlett Johansson). Mr. Hewett (Brian Cox) admires Chris' self-made gumption and dangles a job offer. Game, set, and match—but there's just one problem. Nola, a fellow outsider, is way too sexy for the Hewetts, and way too forward with men. "So, who's my next victim?" she coos to Chris at the Ping-Pong table. Ever the athlete, he answers her confidence with his own best weapon. Though he and Chloe are soon wed and set up in a fabulous Thames-view apartment, it's Nola he craves. ("Did anyone ever tell you you have very sensual lips?" he asks. No, never, I'm sure.)
Other than his role as the cute girls soccer coach in Bend It Like Beckham, Rhys-Meyers has no set image in America. Handsome, ambitious, and guarded, Chris is like an Irish cousin to Patricia Highsmith's Ripley. Chris lets the Hewetts feel better about themselves by allowing them to help him—job, wife, apartment—while never letting on just how he feels about them. It's obvious that he likes their luxe houses and cars and wines and box at the Royal Opera, and Allen does, too. His players live in the same gilded bubble as on the other side of the Atlantic; even Nola, who can't land a single acting gig, has a better apartment than most New Yorkers would dream of. Chris can't break it off with her, but he loves the Hewetts' money and privilege more. And nobody, not Chloe, not her family, not even Nola, sees him for what he is.
THIS SETS THE PLOT in motion, and Allen's execution is like clockwork. Suddenly he seems aware of cell phones and their marvelous capacity to further a lie, of how alibis are constructed, and even how cops do their job. (Ewen Bremner from Trainspotting and James Nesbitt from Millions are the very amusing detectives on the case.) Though in his older films he most often references the Marx Brothers and Bergman, Match Point demonstrates he's seen his share of noirs and police procedurals, too. (There's even a brief clip from Rififi.) And Hitchcock.
Johansson, God love her, has always seemed an actress somewhat out of her time. Lift her via CGI into some '40s Barbara Stanwyck flick, and she'd fit in nicely. Nola first strikes you as a femme fatale, but she's brittle behind those porcelain cheeks. Chris has his weaknesses, too. They haven't had the benefit of therapy or wealth or good parenting, which is why their masks of acquired status are so important. One slip and it's back to backhands for him, back to Colorado for her. She's the first to turn hysterical, but even Rhys-Meyers has his breakdown (and best scene)—riding in a cab to an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, of all things.
In fact, most of Match Point is set to opera, and much of that is sung by Caruso. Why does this driven Irish jock love that music? Because it contains "everything that is tragic about life" he says. And what's the difference between comedy and tragedy? For Allen, they're two sides of an expertly tossed coin.