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by Ed Symkus & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & L & lt;/span & ooking back over the films of Woody Allen, it seems that, among the straightforward serious ones, the theme of infidelity has come up more than any other subject. Match Point, certainly his best film since the seriocomic Sweet and Lowdown (1999), fits comfortably into the style of his movies from the late '80s and early '90s (including the masterpieces Crimes and Misdemeanors and Husbands and Wives.) And infidelity is very much in the foreground in Match Point. Near the outset, in fact, we see protagonist Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) -- formerly on the international tennis circuit, now merely a club pro teaching the game to rich British wankers -- poring over a thick volume of Dostoevsky. He soon meets members of the wealthy Hewett family and gets chummy with handsome Tom (Matthew Goode), who introduces him to his lovely sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) and his fianc & eacute;e Nola (Scarlett Johansson).


Immediately, Chris is charmed by Chloe but fascinated by Nola. In fact, you can tell from her first scene that Johansson's Nola is going to be a force to be reckoned with.


Match Point could easily have focused just on Nola -- a complicated creature who's despised by her fianc & eacute;e's mother, bitter about her stalled acting "career," very aware of how she affects men. She catches on right away, the first time the two couples go dining, that Chris can't take his eyes off her. When she and Chris later bump into each other, she tries to warn him off, suggesting that he shouldn't blow what he's got with the wonderful and wealthy Chloe.


But Allen chooses to make this the story of Chris. Despite being incredibly happy with Chloe (who wants nothing more than to get married and have children), Chris just can't help himself. He takes to following Nola around like a puppy, even managing to isolate her in a rainy field so he can steal a first forbidden kiss. Nola may not be very likeable, but she sure makes sense: "We can't do this," she says. "This cannot lead to anyplace." But while Nola is garnering some audience sympathy, it's far too late for Chris. The poor fool is hooked.


Allen has filled his script with an abundance of finely wrought plot twists that begin about halfway in, turn the story and characters inside out, then come flying at a fast clip toward the conclusion: engagements, marriages, breakups, infertility and the kind of infidelity that involves sneaking out of work, secretive phone calls and lies that keep getting bigger and sloppier.


Because Allen's stories have been in this territory so many times before, this all feels familiar: Some parts could actually have come right out of Crimes and Misdemeanors. But he handles it creatively by adding new dimensions to his characters' faults. The tormented Chris desperately questions himself about the difference between love and lust -- more to the point, about the difference between his feelings for his wife and his mistress. Watching him fall deeper and deeper into this situation, you just want to reach out to the screen -- kind of the opposite effect of what Allen did in The Purple Rose of Cairo -- and shake some sense into him. And then Nola forfeits much of that audience sympathy she had gained.


Even though Allen's regular production designer, Santo Loquasto, has been replaced by Jim Clay, he still chooses his familiar sepia-toned palette. But there are surprises: Match Point spins off into wildly unexpected areas, revising its tennis metaphors and even bursting the bonds of realism. And instead of his usual old-timey jazz soundtrack, Allen has filled this one with opera. There's no doubt in my mind that those arias are commenting on Match Point's chief focus, infidelity.





Match Point; Rated: R; Written and directed by Woody Allen; Starring Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Matthew Goode

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