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Is "Match Point" Woody's comeback?

ReelPolitik By Anthony Kaufman | ReelPolitik November 29, 2005 at 1:40AM

Is "Match Point" Woody's comeback?
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The answer is yes and no. At a special screening of "Match Point" with the fragile, hard-of-hearing, yet still witty Woodman in attendance, the Lincoln Center-set got a preview of the director's latest London-shot tale of love, lust, crimes and misdemeanors. Before the movie, a series of clips from past Woody favorites like "Annie Hall," "Manhattan," "Hannah and Her Sisters" and "Crimes and Misdemeanors" were shown at Alice Tulley Hall -- sterling, nostalgic reminders of how Woody Allen had once been such a wonderful director, and how much he had since fallen from grace. The stakes were raised: Would "Match Point" compare to his early greats, as some have suggested?

After a series of lame, softball questions from the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Wendy Keyes, the woman finally touched on a topic that revealed the man behind the glasses and New York accent: a cynicism that refreshingly returned in the film to be screened. "I think there are small oases, brief respites, where you're distracted from the abysmal nightmare of human existence," he said. "I think we all find moments of breathing space, like cold water on a hot day. But I don't feel good about anything."

It was a fitting intro for "Match Point," whose sharp-edged cynicism matches the worldview of "Crimes and Misdemeanors." Woody even manages to invoke the notion of "collateral damage" in an offhanded swipe at the current political moment, noting the meaningless and injustice of humanity. It's pretty dour stuff, and except for a very few instances of black humor, "Match Point" is largely devoid of comedy. Which I guess is a good thing, considering Woody's recent unfunny films. Despite a clever script and one particularly ingenious twist, what prevents "Match Point" from being an amazing film (among other things) is that the director has tackled these themes and plots -- infidelity and murder -- more poignantly before in films like "Hannah" and "Crimes." If audiences hadn't seen these films, I imagine "Match Point" would look like a near-masterpiece. Or maybe not.

I also take issue with Scarlett Johansson and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers: As smoldering as these two actors are, they lack the complexity to show the agony and conflicted emotion that immense talents like Michael Caine, Martin Landau and Angelika Houston have conveyed in similar roles. They may be "hot" -- as Woody said last night stressing the "t" in his trademark way -- but their love scenes resemble some bodice-stripping harlequin romance, and perhaps the perverse fantasies of a 70-year-old man. Well, at least this time, Woody didn't put himself in the role.