THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby was an important reminder that movies can be powerful when theyíre subtle. That film had no need for big speeches, melodramatic moments, or grand messages. It simply told its story in a straightforward, economical style. The year 2005 has seen several pictures effectively take a similar approach, from Jim Jarmuschís minimalist Broken Flowers to Woody Allenís introspective new Match Point.

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers plays Chris Wilton, a financially struggling tennis pro at a posh English country club. Chris quickly becomes friends with one of his pupils, Tom Hewitt (Matthew Goode), and they start spending time together. Tom provides an entryway into a higher class of living: tickets to the opera, fancy dinner parties, and so on. Chris is physically attracted to Tomís blonde American fiancee, a struggling actress named Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson). Although he canít have her, he can have Tomís sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer). The two get married, assuring that Chris will continue to live the good life courtesy of his new wifeís family. It is, for him, a marriage of convenience, although his wife does not know this.

But Chris remains attracted to Nola, and she attracted to him, as well. She initially tries to do the right thing but ultimately cannot. Their affair grows more and more passionate. Nola eventually tries to persuade Chris to leave Chloe. This is not so easy to do, since divorcing her would mean giving up the lifestyle he has grown accustomed to. On the other hand, staying with her would mean losing the other woman for whom his passion is very real. Pressure comes from both sides, with Chloe pulling him closer as she deals with fertility issues and Nola pushing him to stop screwing around and make the commitment to her instead.

What Chris ultimately does isnít necessarily a surprise (many films with adultery as their theme go down this road) but it doesnít matter. His dilemma is beautifully drawn, showing us how the pressure mounts steadily to the point where it becomes almost unbearable for him. This is a story about a fundamental conundrum in life: What happens when you want two different things very badly, but you can only choose one of them? Chris tries to find a way to have his cake and eat it to, only to discover that the logistics are impossible, or people wonít go along with his plan, or unexpected things get in the way. He quickly realizes that he has to make a choice between romantic passion and material well-being.

In the last 20 minutes, two other characters are introduced. I wonít reveal who they are or what purpose they serve. However, I will say that these characters open the door for the underlying theme of Match Point: the unpredictable nature of luck. The first shot of the movie is of a tennis ball hitting the net and bouncing straight up into the air. Chrisís voiceover narration talks about how the ball can go over the net (and the player wins) or it can bounce backwards (and the player loses). Itís all a matter of luck at that point. This shot proves to be significant, as a variation of it appears late in the story. Chrisís luck hangs in the balance at that exact moment.

Woody Allenís movies have been a little hit-or-miss in the past few years, but Match Point is easily one of the best of his career. Like his earlier masterpiece Crimes and Misdemeanors, this film has all kinds of juicy moral dilemmas for the lead character to deal with and for the audience to ponder. Whatís interesting is that Allen takes the time to properly set the stage. The first 40 minutes focus on establishing the characters and their relationships with one another. For a time, I wasnít even certain where the film was going. (I didnít have the advantage of a plot description prior to viewing.) This relaxed flow pays off later on. Because we understand Chrisís desire to enter a higher socioeconomic class, and because we understand the intense chemistry between he and Nola, and because we understand the deep betrayal that Chloe unknowingly faces, the story is able to ratchet up psychological suspense in a way that feels authentic. This is not Woody Allen being a clever screenwriter; this is how situations of this sort probably go down in real life.

As always, the filmmaker has coaxed superb performances from his cast. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers does a sensational job playing his characterís inner torment. Chris is neither a hero nor a villain; he is not a bad person, but he does bad things for selfish reasons. His bad deeds eat him up inside, yet they donít make him feel uncomfortable enough to stop doing them. The actor captures all this in a complex, mesmerizing performance. Scarlett Johansson is his equal. (Both deserve serious Oscar consideration.) Nola is generally insecure. Her acting career is a non-starter and she becomes distressed when Chris wonít leave his wife for her. At the same time, the character has a well of strength, as seen when she gives him the ultimate ultimatum: itís her or me. With strong work in Lost in Translation, In Good Company and several other recent pictures, Johansson has really shown herself to be a versatile young actress.

Of course, setting Match Point in London immediately makes the movie different from other Woody Allen films, which are always set in New York. The change of scenery has served him well. While Iíve long been a fan of Allenís, I recognize that many of his works Ė especially in the past few years Ė have felt kind of similar. Even the ones that Iíve liked have been prototypical Woody Allen pictures. Match Point shakes things up, allowing the director to explore darker ideas while still following his personal vision. If youíre a fan, then put this on your must-see list; if youíve gotten away from Allenís movies in recent years, now is the time to come back.

( out of four)

Match Point is rated R for some sexuality. The running time is 2 hours and 4 minutes.

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