Match Point

Regardless of our undying puritanical ire over Woody Allen running off with his ex's adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn (they've now been happily married for over eight years, so the joke's on us), Americans have a funny relationship with Allen: All the US critics are hailing Match Point as his best work in years - a thoughtful, non-gimmicky return to his Crimes and Misdemeanors era - while the Europeans, who never gave up on him, insist that his work never required a "comeback" in the first place.

While Allen himself has admitted that his recent comedies Hollywood Ending and Curse of the Jade Scorpion were minor offerings, most of his Euro following believes that even a lesser Woody Allen film still has a lot more interesting ideas than any given Hollywood "prestige" picture. I'm inclined to agree.

That's why I don't see what all the fuss over Match Point is about. It's okay, but it's hardly one of Allen's best. I suppose it comes down to hype: all the yuppies tell their friends that Woody Allen is back in the game, so everybody rushes out to see the film. (My wife and I went on a Thursday night and the theatre was packed.) The Woodman must be amused by the turnout, as his film skewers - not too gently - the graceless 21st century bourgeoisie that makes up his own audience.

Admittedly, it's hard to discuss what Match Point is really all about without revealing details of the final half-hour of the film. But I will say that its story, about a poor Irish-born tennis coach named Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who befriends an ultra-rich London family and romances their ostensibly smart but rather simple-minded daughter Chloe (Emily Mortimer) while lusting for her brother's American fiancee Nola (Scarlett Johansson), owes as much to Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley as it does to Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment - which, rather portentously, Chris is glimpsed reading early in the film. (It's another irony that this penniless athlete is more genuinely cultured than the jolly socialites who have adopted him: Chloe and her brother think The Motorcycle Diaries and the new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical constitute "high art".)

Match Point's ambitious young tennis player who yearns for a comfortable life and has to deal with a troubled woman in the shadows easily brings to mind Farley Granger's character in Hitchcock's adaptation of Strangers on a Train, but in this case Chris doesn't need a Robert Walker to bring out his dark side: he is hero, villain, and - thanks to Rhys Meyers's womanly good looks - even femme fatale, all rolled into one. He's a fascinatingly blank character. We know he lusts after Nola, but he doesn't seem interested in much else - not even the wealth or power being offered him on a silver platter by Chloe's insipid family. His own story centers around his sole pronounced belief, that of the importance of luck in a successful life, and his theories are put to the test in several of the film's later tense moments.

I don't like Rhys Meyers much; he's a pretty-boy actor whose priggishness usually sinks his roles. But he's well-cast here, being as much of a cipher as his character is. Johansson, as the film's token American, is fine as a typically plaintive Allen heroine. In fact, despite her introduction as a seductress, hers ultimately becomes the only sympathetic, rational character in the whole film.

Provided that other critics haven't spoiled the last act for you as they had for me, you may very well like Match Point. It takes a while to get up to speed, and Allen's dialogue for once doesn't zing - he simply does not have an ear for how British people actually speak - but it's got some nice surprises, several clever details, and, as usual, a lot of interesting ideas.