Saturday, October 29, 2005

Woody Allen: New and Old

Woody Allen's newest film, Match Point, is quite possibly his most successful "serious" film to date. It bears hints of many of his past works - particularly Crimes and Misdemeanors, Hannah and her Sisters, and Mighty Aphrodite - but this film is far, far more than the kind of antiseptic, backcatalogue poachery exhibited by Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory this past summer. Match Point, although distinctly an Allen film, stands entirely on its own, untethered by the canon that came before it. Perhaps because Allen does not act in the film, perhaps because it doesn't take place in New York City, or perhaps because it simply has no trace of the all-too-familiar Woody Allen brand of comedy, but - whatever the case may be - this film defies comparison with its predecessors.

The movie follows the story of Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers of Bend it Like Beckham fame), an Irish tennis player who quits the professional circuit, becomes an instructor at a posh health club in London, quickly befriends one of his pupils, and begins a startling ascent into London high society. The pupil, Tom Hewitt (Matthew Goode), comes from a wealthy family who has a box at the Opera and, as chance would have it, "someone can't make it" for that evening's performance and, since Chris has mentioned an interest in opera over a post-lesson drink, Tom invites him to come along. Once there, Chris makes the acquaintance of the whole Hewitt family, including Tom's sister Chloë (Emily Mortimer). With a few more happy accidents here and there, Chris quickly elevates himself to a much higher rung on the socioeconomic ladder.

The film - and all of the publicity surrounding it - famously asserts that, more than anything, life is a game of chance, that it is more important to be lucky than to be talented and Chris's experience certainly does assert the significance of happenstance. After all, the entirety of his success is reliant on a series of coincidences starting with the open seat in the private box of the wealthy tennis student he meets that day. Nonetheless, there's more to Chris's life than luck, even if he doesn't want to believe it.

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is fantastic as Chris, portraying a fish out of water who has willed his fins into the shape of arms and legs and forced his gills to breathe air. His performance - the character's, not the actor's - as an erudite, cultured young man who defies his low birth to rise to the level that his intellect demands somehow doesn't ring true. Like the film's scratchy, unmastered opera soundtrack that sounds more like an old record player than the actual aria it's playing, Chris comes off as not the real thing, but a very well-studied copy. Look for his reading material. Listen for the accent that would seem apparent from all of the times that Tom addresses him as "Irish," but simply isn't there. There is something else at play here other than luck, something over which both Chris and the film itself cast a veil of obscurity: trained and focused ambition, not hard work, but the actual overwhelming desire to achieve success, no matter the obstacles encountered.

Scarlett Johansson also stars as Tom's fiancée Nola Rice, a sexy American actress trying to work her way into the London theatre circle. She, unlike Chris, has bad luck, loses her cool at every audition, and can never seem to earn a role. The way these two characters interact with each other show just how potently both luck and ambition figure as the two dominant factors in a person's path in life. Is it good or bad luck that these two meet one another? In the end, the only thing that matters is how they deal with the outcome.

Allen has written and directed a very interesting and intelligent new movie. It is a film unlike any other that he's ever been involved in before, bearing a dark subtlety and layered complexity that goes almost entirely unsupported by the lightness of humor that Allen has made his name on. There have, of course, been serious and somber Allen films before, most notably his tragic Interiors, but that was more of a transposition of Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata from Sweden to New York than a film of Allen's own making. With Match Point, Woody Allen has found a new and powerful voice, one that might finally convince critics and viewers alike to stop holding every new film up to the thirty year-old gold standard he set with Annie Hall and just appreciate his work in its own contemporary context. He will never again make Annie Hall, but he just might make something better.

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Shortly before seeing Match Point, I went to a repertory screening of Manhattan. The two films, rivals in quality, are polar opposites when it comes to style and genre. Set in New York, shot in black and white, equally comedic and dramatic, Manhattan bears not the slightest resemblance to its newest younger cousin. Instead of lust, it focuses upon love. In the place of luck, the value it sets atop the highest of pedestals is purity.

Woody Allen plays Isaac Davis, a twice-divorced TV comedy writer dating a 17 year-old high school girl named Tracy (Mariel Hemingway, in a stunning performance she has yet to match in the almost thirty years since). His friends are Yale (Michael Murphy) and Emily (Anne Byrne), who think of Isaac as their child just as much as they think of him as their friend. Diane Keaton plays Mary, a neurotic and brilliant Radcliffe graduate who first has an affair with Yale (making for kind of an odd-match, intercollegiate sports rivalries being as they are) and then with Isaac.

In every one of these relationships - romantic and otherwise - each party is obsessed by the other's potential. Yale thinks Isaac is wasting his life writing TV comedy drivel. Isaac doesn't want Tracy to ruin her bright future by falling in love with him. Isaac and Emily worry that Yale is never going to finish his book. Mary marvels at the genius of everyone surrounding her, falling for men whose intellects stimulate, but also belittle her own. Accordingly, Isaac chides her for wasting her literary talents on writing film novelizations when she's perfectly capable of writing her own novels.

Set against this story is Gordon Willis's stunning black and white view of Manhattan and a sublime George Gershwin soundtrack. The city - a mix of fantastic architecture, pulsing energy, and what Isaac considers to be a declining culture - becomes a metaphor for every relationship in the film. Isaac and Willis's camera see the city for all the potential that it has and are saddened by its failure to live up to that potential.

Manhattan is the story of a quest for purity, carried out by the impure in an impure setting and, whenever they find what they're looking for, their contact with it immediately renders it impure in their eyes. In the end, much like a person's relationship with a city, all of the relationships in this movie turn out to be one-sided; they're more about each person's conception of the other, rather than the person him/herself, as is brilliantly illustrated with Willis's focus on negative space, visually isolating all of the characters from one another, even when they're the only two people in a room.


What separates Manhattan from Match Point is idealism. Isaac and Tracy have it, but Chris does not. Both movies have fairly bleak world views, but Manhattan's is tempered by idealistic, albeit disappointed, characters. Neither film is more or less real than the other - they both present themselves through the eyes of their respective protagonist - but the reality offered by Match Point is much harsher and less romantic than that of Manhattan. Neither won is better than the other; they're too different to compare. Whereas Manhattan represents a past era of Woody Allen's career focused on love and a mature sort of idealism, Match Point represents a watershed moment of transition in which Allen has successfully carved the beginnings of a new path for himself as a writer/director. Ironically, by abandoning his trademark balance of pessimism and romance in favor of sheer pessimism, Allen has made his future as a writer/director look all the more optimistic.

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