Nihilism, Anyone? Knocking on Woody for Match
By Fernando F. Croce

The Cannes wags trumpeted Match Point as Woody Allen's comeback, but wasn't that what Melinda and Melinda was supposed to have been? In that one, Allen fed the same narrative into the dueling masks of comedy and tragedy, supposedly to expose the thinness of line separating the two, yet in reality only further proving how glibly desiccated the director's worldview has become. Accordingly, Match Point is Woody in Serious Mode, fastidiously humorless, cut from the same cloth as Interiors, September, and, predictably, Crimes and Misdemeanors, the main template for many a critical comparison -- both pictures are companion pieces of hollow misanthropy, immersed in mock-Dostoyevsky, facile darkness-of-the-soul pontificating, and an anger/fear of a senseless cosmos. Allen's theme is the role of luck versus, say, faith, the future of a tennis ball freeze-framed suspended above the net following a scratchy Caruso recording over the opening credits. The player is Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who's miraculously excused from playing Charlie McCarthy to Allen's Edgar Bergen as the corruptible hero, a struggling Irish bloke in London. The British setting is the most obvious change, though, as with Altman in Gosford Park, the foreign shoot only accentuates the filmmaker's pet fixations, and in any case Allen films upper-crust London the same way he films the two or three Upper East Side blocks he refuses to leave mentally, if not physically.

If nothing else, the change of scenery may have wrung an extra confession out of Woody: while his post-Hannah and Her Sisters output's been dedicated to drooling over luxurious apartments, Match Point is at least about wanting all that yummy yuppie luxury. Even without the puppetmaster's telltale sputters, Rhys-Meyers' coldly anguished social-climber is easily spotted as an Allen stand-in, not just in his salivation for wealth but also in his smug nihilism and love for grand opera, the latter which clinches a friendship with Matthew Goode, the ultra-rich lad Rhys-Meyers meets at the tennis club where he works. From there, it's just a step into Goode's aristocratic clan, where the outsider quickly endears himself to sweet sister Emily Mortimer and patriarch Brian Cox, his comfy future thus secured. Enter Scarlett Johansson, first seen by the ping-pong table in Lana Turner's white dress -- Goode's fiancée, a luckless actress from Colorado and, yup, a lippy siren with smoldering eyes. The flirtation over drinks after a blown audition reveals the unconscious narcissism, with the back-and-forth close-ups of these two gorgeous specimens functioning like two sides of the same mirror, though union doesn't come until a little later, a roll in the fields out in the rain. Johansson disappears to America, only to return as Rhys-Meyers' constant escape from his claustrophobically gilded existence; their horned-up thrashings allow the desiccated Allen a hint of sensuality, and even a "directorial touch," a curving pan from a snowy widow to the illicit lovers having fun with oil, then back for a dissolve into springtime blossoming.

The bloom is soon off Johansson, however, made into a psycho-glingy harpy after becoming pregnant and a threat to Rhys-Meyers' place in London's upper-crust universe; what's for our boy to do but go for his shotgun as the American Tragedy-Fatal Attraction lasso tightens around his neck? The blast of violence is kept offscreen, of course, tastefully distanced like everything else in Match Point, frozen in cinematographer Remi Adefarasin's ravishing amber lighting and icy contemplation of "luck." Will the ball fall on this or that side of the net? Will the cops uncover the foul play under their noses, or will the culprit slip away? Is nihilism the path of least resistance, or is it faith? Allen is still asking questions after all these decades, yet he has long supplied his own answers, and the insistent inquiry only cloaks the complacency of an artist who's shunned any possibility of change, responsibility or even emotion in favor of archly cultivated negativity. God's blind and the innocent become "collateral damage," but how much of a morality tale can a picture be when life itself is made so limited to begin with? Allen idol Ingmar Bergman exposes the ghosts of his own obsessions last year in Saraband, while Allen merely regurgitates his shrunken vision in veddy-British padding. "Una furtiva lagrima" -- Caruso weeps for Rhys-Meyers in the splendor of his cage, but above all for you, Woody.

*

Eli Roth is another American abroad, following the indigenous virulent horrors of his ingenious debut Cabin Fever with the dark-heart-of-Europe dread of the new Hostel. Like last week's Wolf Creek, anticipation figures in heavily, Roth keeping things at the level of a Eurotrip romp before precipitating the infernal descent, here a Most Dangerous Game riff staged amid the rubble hidden underneath the storybook domes of an off-the-map Slovakian hamlet. Also like Wolf Creek, it's basically a series of interesting ideas floating around a sea of blood, grue, vomit, snot, and other fluids, as a couple of young Americans (Jay Hernandez, Derek Richardson) and their Icelandic bud (Eythor Gudjonsson) trek through the continent in search of sensations, the more depraved the better. Amsterdam's Red Light District is too vanilla, so off they go to the titular edifice, where babes will readily drop their panties at the sound of a foreign accent -- a front, of course, to a high-priced you-pay-you-slay ring where none other than Takashi Miike strolls out as a satisfied customer. The beginning is all boobs and asscheeks, but as the plot shifts underground Roth substitutes sawed-off tendons and optical nerve incisions as the money shots; bodies first offered for lascivious contemplation become the object of butchering, a comment on the commodization of cruelty, of which the movie itself is cannily complicit. A vivid slaughterhouse, Hostel woke me from the Match Point slumber, just in time for...

*

...Casanova, unhappily. Not Fellini's, but Lasse Hallström's, and the perfect way to assured middlebrow audiences that, no, folks, Heath Ledger wasn't really gay in Brokeback Mountain, don't worry. Ledger plays the famed 18th-century pussy-hound, leaping from boudoir to boudoir until meeting his match in independent-minded gal Francesca (Sienna Miller), apparently in the process of inventing feminism while resisting the bewigged lothario's charms. Casanova is a bit of a libertine, the Inquisition (i.e., Jeremy Irons doing purse-lipped villainy) constantly on his tail, but under the studio's gaze he's really a nice guy looking for love and marriage, while Francesca herself deep down just wants a true man to settle down with. Timid pleas against close-minded conformity, honeyed touristic views of Venice, Oliver Platt trying to pump humor into the vapid proceedings -- virtually a rehash of Hallström's flaccid Chocolate, packaged for viewers who want to boast about going to art-houses without actually having to catch any art, and further evidence of Hollywood's penchant for cutting the balls off rogues. A Casanova retelling now should be for sex what Hostel is for violence, though it's all too obvious which of the elements gets more leeway in screens nowadays.


Reviewed January 12, 2006.

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