Woody's Women

[Editor's Note: this article includes possible spoilers to the plot of the film. Read at your own discretion.]

Take away the trademark credits sequence (white Windsor type on a black background) and at first it's easy to forget that "Match Point" is a Woody Allen film.

But in the movie, which opens Dec. 28, the director shakes up his more or less successful formula with a move to London, where we meet Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a former professional tennis player turned in-house tennis pro at an exclusive London club. Chris quickly becomes friends with one of his pupils, the plummy Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), who introduces him to his wealthy family's inner circle, among them his sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer).

Chris begins a tepid but seemingly committed romance with Chloe, only to meet Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), Tom's sexy American fiancée. Tom's mom, it should be noted, wants her son to marry Olivia, a distant cousin who dismissed the notion as borderline incestuous.

Chris and Nola meet over a game of table tennis, where they exchange some facile double entendres ("Has anyone ever told you that you play a very aggressive game?") before Chris does that annoying thing men do in movies, where he corrects her posture from behind, showing her how to correctly hold the racket. (Does that ever happen in real life? Do women ever find it seductive? I seriously doubt it.)

Despite some heavy flirtation with Nola, Chris eventually marries Chloe. But in a classic, adulterous Woody Allen move, he still chooses to seduce Nola (soaking wet, on the ground in the rain, designer jeans plastered to their bodies). Forget sexy -- it just looks uncomfortable.

And that's when we realize that despite the British cast, the Belgravia townhouses, and the chauffeured Jaguar with steering wheel on the right, we're firmly in typical Woody Allen territory. The infidelity of a husband, and the lengths he'll go to hide an affair from his wife and family, is a topic Allen has limned many times before -- perhaps most similarly in 1989's "Crimes and Misdemeanors."

But this time around our protagonist is torn between his loving, posh, clueless, barren British wife and the sexy, luscious, clueless, fertile American mistress. Nola and Chloe have their nominal differences, but Allen has drawn their characters with such a broad hand that it is particularly difficult to care about either woman, since they both appear to think about nothing beyond getting married and getting pregnant. (Nola's shelves are lined with books, and Chloe makes vague references to opening an art gallery, but neither character is given much to work with in the intellectual curiosity department.)

It's enough to make you yearn for Allen's somewhat tougher female characters of yore. While the director's women have always been extreme, exhibiting one magnified personality trait above all else, there was a time when he clearly found inspiration in feisty women -- think of the characters played by Diane Keaton, Judy Davis, Mia Farrow and Dianne Wiest. These characters were far from perfect, but at least they had brains. It was a time when Allen's heroines would read E.E. Cummings and see "The Sorrow and the Pity."

Now we're supposed to laugh at Chloe, whose biggest thrill is seeing the latest Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Annie Hall was a struggling singer who was eventually allowed to find success; poor Nola's just a wannabe actress who ends up a shopgirl.

In his films, Allen has always had a soft spot for women who are messes, who are fragile but lovably unkempt (see many of Keaton's and Farrow's characters). But they also felt fully formed, as deliciously full of ticks and neuroses as any of Allen's equally flawed men. Meryl Streep has never been fiercer onscreen--and yes, I even saw that river-rafting adventure flick she did a few years back--than as Allen's lesbian ex-wife who writes a tell-all in "Manhattan."

Particularly in the past decade, Allen's women have held on to their fragility and flakiness, but lost their depth. Of course there are exceptions -- but for every Goldie Hawn, so self-assured playing Allen's ex-wife and confidante in "Everyone Says I Love You," there's a Julia Roberts, who plays his improbable love interest in the same film. Roberts staggers through the film looking like she doesn't know what to do with herself. It's not her fault--she's just a plot device and a pretty face; a sketch of a woman.

Roberts is just one of Allen's new generation of preferred actresses. Others include Charlize Theron, Mira Sorvino, Samantha Morton, Winona Ryder, and Christina Ricci. All are younger, more glamorous, and more bankable at the box office. And with his frequent casting of this revised crop of leading ladies, Woody Allen's common film storyline has evolved into the recurring question, "How does this geeky little man always manage to win the beautiful girl?"

"Match Point" star Scarlett Johansson fits the young (19!), lovely ingénue mold, and is being hailed as his latest muse. She has another Allen film in the works, too: a comedy about--you guessed it--an American student in London who gets embroiled in an affair with an aristocrat.

But with Allen absent from the screen, Johannsson, as "Match Point"'s token neurotic American, goes beyond simply being the love interest; she acts as Allen's stand-in and alter ego -- at least for the first half of the film. While she initially appears to be the most strong, sensible woman in the film, seeing through the Hewetts' money and always up for a little banter, her character quickly devolves from no-nonsense confidence to shrill with absolutely no warning.

We're meant to believe that love and babies has made Nola hysterical, Chris homicidal, and Chloe, well, dull. But the movei's greatest transgression is its morally ambiguous conclusion, in which Allen seems to suggest that staying with one's wife is the greatest punishment of all.

If Allen's oeuvre has always, ultimately, been about chronicling male-female relationships -- every conflict, nuance, absurdity and confusion -- then "Match Point," which has been hailed by many critics as a return to form, marks a newly domesticated turn in the director's worldview. To use one of the many heavy-handed gaming references the film is so fond of, it's as if Allen has given up on the battle between the sexes; because women just aren't worthy enough opponents.

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