2005 – Woody Allen
Rated R: 124 minutes
Vault Rating: 8
The opening scene of Woody Allen’s latest is a close up of a tennis net. A ball goes back and forth as Chris Wilton explains his take on the fates in voice over. Finally, the ball hits the top of the net and bounces straight up into a freeze frame.
“The man who said he’d rather be lucky than good saw deeply into life,” explains Wilton. “People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent upon luck.”
Which way the ball and this exceptional little movie falls was for this critic a gut wrenching ride. The film starts out promising a smoking love affair, a “9 1/2 Weeks” if you will, that careens wildly out of control and crashes into something approaching Alfred Hitchcock.
The story centers on a magnetic professional tennis player, Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who is giving up the circuit and applying for a job as a tennis pro at a high end London club. One gets the feel that he’s something of a “Talented Mr. Ripley” as he studies opra, art and literature and begins to insinuate himself into society.
Shades of his character appear early. He is good. He is lucky. He works hard and he is utterly faithless. I know people, and maybe you do too, who are cut from the same oily cloth. When he takes up with Chloe (Emily Mortimer), the attractive, smart millionaire’s daughter, he begins his assent into society even while he is drawn into a fevered pursuit of her brother’s fiancee.
Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson) is a sexy American wannabe actress living in England who absolutely radiates heat. She, like Chris, uses her smooth edges to her advantage and so the two make one hell of a doubles pair. The love triangle that develops between Chloe, Chis and Nola, especially after Chloe and Chris marry, and especially after Chris rises high up in daddy’s company, is enough fuel for an entire movie. But then Allen throws more wood on the fire.
Chloe’s relationship with her husband is austere while they try, try again for a pregnancy. Meanwhile, all of Chris’s energy is being diverted into – shall we say – other outlets. He’s just about spread as thin as he can be when the rabbit dies, a situation that throws a pretty good drama into a chaotic finishing cycle that (call me stupid) I did not see coming.
I hand it to Allen, whose films of late seem to get better and better, for 1) staying behind the camera – Vault has always hated Allen on screen – and 2) finding a way to somehow get the viewer to sympathize with a vile protagonist. It is usually the case that the audience has to like the person through whom we view the proceedings. That doesn’t happen here.
Wilton is so smooth that he also insinuates himself into the audience’s perspective and you wind up actually pulling for him. Well, maybe not pulling for him, but wondering to what length he’ll go next to extend his run of lies. How, we ask ourselves, will he pull this one off. Is he really that good or is he really that lucky? That is the question the film sets up and the horse we ride as romantic drama turns into crime drama.
Allen’s script is phenomenal, top to bottom. It has lots of innuendo and sharp edged commentary throughout. And the look of the film is as slick as its characters. So much so that a second viewing would be more fun than the first, I think.
Make sure you pick up “Match Point.” It’s a great little thriller, as exciting as Allen’s “Small Time Crooks” was funny. Woody Allen is at the top of his form.
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