ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Woody Allen's latest movie is a lot of things that most Woody Allen films are not. It is set in London rather than New York. It stars mostly British actors, and it is not a comedy. But Bob Mondello says "Match Point" represents a return to form for the director.
BOB MONDELLO reporting:
Who'd have guessed that a drama about moral choices and luck, plain, blind luck, would turn out to be Woody Allen's most satisfying film in years? In the opening moment we see a tennis ball whizzing back and forth across a net and then hitting the top of the net and bouncing straight up. It could fall either way, but in agonizing slow motion, it falls backwards. A similar bounce ended the tournament career of a young, working-class tennis champion named Chris, but he figures he can still bounce upward in life by teaching tennis at an uppercrusty London club. He is befriended by one of his first pupils, a fellow named Tom, who invites him to a party on the family estate, where Chris finds a blonde actress playing table tennis.
(Soundbite of "Match Point"; ball bouncing)
"Ms. NOLA RICE": So who's my next victim?
"Mr. CHRIS WILTON": I haven't played table tennis in quite a while?
"Ms. RICE": Would you like to play for a thousand pounds a game?
"Mr. WILTON": What did I walk into?
MONDELLO: He slams her serve.
(Soundbite of "Match Point"; ball being hit back and forth)
"Ms. RICE": What did I walk into?
"Mr. WILTON": So tell me, what's a beautiful, young, American Ping-Pong player doing mingling amongst the British upper class?
MONDELLO: At about that moment in walks Tom, and the plot thickens.
(Soundbite of "Match Point")
"TOM": Ah, there you are. I wanted to introduce you to Chris Wilton. Chris Wilton, this is Nola Rice, my fiancee.
"Ms. RICE": Uh-huh. So you're the tennis pro.
"Mr. WILTON": My pleasure.
"Ms. RICE": He was trying to have his way with me over the table.
"TOM": Oh, really? Well, we'd better watch out for this one. He's made a living out of hustling.
"Ms. RICE": I'll be ready for you next time.
MONDELLO: Oh, if only. With Nola spoken for, Chris falls into an affair with Tom's sister, and all four of them become more or less inseparable. Alas, he's still less interested in his girlfriend than he is in Tom's. And when an opportunity presents itself to be alone with her in a pouring rain out of sight of the others, he leaps at it.
(Soundbite of "Match Point"; rain)
"Mr. WILTON": I don't mean to intrude.
"Ms. RICE": I need a drink.
"Mr. WILTON": I like it when you drink. You get flirtatious.
"Ms. RICE": Do I?
"Mr. WILTON": Yeah, and confident.
"Ms. RICE": I don't think this is a good idea. You shouldn't have followed me here.
"Mr. WILTON": Do you feel guilty?
(Soundbite of thunder)
"Ms. RICE": Do you?
MONDELLO: He answers her with a kiss, and an awkward situation takes a bounce towards adultery.
Now Woody Allen has dealt with adultery before, notably in his comedy "Crimes and Misdemeanors," which shares quite a few plot points with "Match Point." But he leavens that movie with laughs. Here he's working with soap opera complications, grand opera emotions and jokes that are not designed to prompt many chuckles, even when they involve Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. For Allen, whose comic timing as a director, has sometimes seemed a bit off of late, this turns out to be mostly a matter of adjusting rhythms. The dialogue in "Match Point" is just as smart as in most of his films, but it's delivered in ways that suggests the characters are covering up tension with wit. By the film's midpoint there's tension enough for a Hitchcock festival.
(Soundbite of "Match Point")
"Mr. WILTON": Why have you been so cold to me?
"Ms. RICE": I haven't been cold.
"Mr. WILTON": Yes, you have. Ever since we came back from the countryside, you've been distant, evasive.
"Ms. RICE": Chris ...(unintelligible) be brother- and sister-in-law.
"Mr. WILTON": Exactly as I pictured you, your face.
"Ms. RICE": Forget it. It's over.
MONDELLO: It's barely beginning actually. The cast handles the switch from romance to romantic thriller deftly with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Scarlett Johansson playing worrisome social climbers in ways that keep you guessing. And as that errant bounce of the tennis ball suggested back at the beginning, luck plays a central role in "Match Point," too, in a twist heart-stopping enough to establish that Woody Allen, a director who turned 70 years young this month, is still very much on top of his game. I'm Bob Mondello.
SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
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