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Match Point

Allen Rebounds With Captivating Morality Play

When we first meet Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), something seems a bit off. He's handsome enough, and his manners are impeccable as he charms his way into the hearts and coffers of a well-to-do British family, the Hewetts. But you can never shake the feeling that Chris is going through the motions, that on some fundamental level he is utterly detached from these people, even (and especially) his future bride, Chloe Hewett (Emily Mortimer). Formerly a journeyman tennis pro, he uses the Hewetts as a means of financing a lifestyle that he can't afford but can't bear to relinquish. His emotional ties to the family are tenuous at best.

Then he meets Nola.

Nola (Scarlett Johansson) is also an outsider of sorts, a struggling American actress who's engaged to Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), Chris' closest friend -- if Chris can be said to have any friends -- and future brother-in-law. He is instantly drawn to her in an obsessive, almost predatory manner, for reasons plainly evident to anyone with a working pair of eyes. To have her, he will betray Tom and Chloe, and when their affair threatens his goldmine of a marriage, he resorts to other less than legal means.

Woody Allen has been down this road before, most memorably in 1989's Crimes and Misdemeanors, which posed roughly the same questions as Match Point: Can a man commit the ultimate crime and still lead a contented, productive life, free of guilt and consequence? If a God exists, then surely the most vicious of sinners would not be rewarded, right? And if they would, what's the point of life in the first place?

Throughout Match Point, which marks Allen's finest work in nearly two decades, Chris argues that so many of the successes and failures in life boil down to luck -- to rephrase his theory: sometimes the ball hits the net and bounces over, sometimes it doesn't. It's a valid point, and a deft repudiation of faith-based ideologies that presume a divine plan, some deeper meaning. Does Allen agree? There's evidence to suggest that he does, but that doesn't excuse or rationalize the behavior of Chris, the consummate sociopath who values others only for what they can do for him.

Rhys Meyers' Chris displays the icy disinterest of a man who says all the right things but means none of them, who lusts all that money can buy -- the women, the clothing, the cars -- without deriving any true pleasure from them. For her part, Johansson is ideally cast as the perpetually dissatisfied mistress who clings more and more to Chris for the same reason he clings to her: It may be the only way they can feel anything akin to pleasure.

It's no coincidence that, early on, Chris is seen poring over Crime and Punishment, for as much as Match Point mirrors Allen's personal attitudes, it also recalls the tale of Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky's desperate, destitute protagonist who seeks his fortune by bludgeoning an aged pawnbroker and stealing her jewelry; Chris does something quite similar. The difference is that in Dostoevsky's world, Raskolnikov cannot live with himself, and admits his crime if only to appease his tortured soul. In Allen's even chillier world, the tormented souls are made out to be saps, while the unrepentant roam free, untouched by conscience and enjoying the fruits of their sins.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars