Match Point starts out unpromisingly enough: Allen's jettisoned his trademark neurotic patter and even Manhattan himself for a cast of Brits in upper class London, in effect substituted one set of white Anglo protestants for another (the main virtue of the city for Allen, you suspect, being that they still speak a form of English there). We get Jonathan Rhys-Meyers' Chris, an appealingly modest Irish tennis player who worked his way up to tennis instructor for the rich; we get Scarlett Johanssen as Nola, Chris' best friend's sexy fiancee, who Rhys-Meyers goes after with all the subtlety of an assault rifle ("you've got sensual eyes"); we have Emily Mortimer's obscenely rich Chloe close at hand, all ripe and ready to fall into Chris' outstretched hand (all the while keeping his eyes trained on the unavailable Nola). Maybe the problem I have with these early scenes is that Mortimer is such a fresh face and Johanssen lit and framed to present such an irresistible seductress that I rebelled against Allen's schematic: hell, no, I don't buy it, not at first glance anyway. Besides, Mortimer is cuter than Johanssen.
Then somehow Allen pulls it together: the film turns into a more cohesive, less pretentious version of his much-applauded Crimes and Misdemeanours, with a more engaging cad for a hero (Martin Landau did his best, but I found all the angst and guilt he displayed in that film a bit dull). Rhys-Meyers never registered for me in Bend it Like Beckham (actually that whole movie barely registered); here Rhys-Meyers plays what could well be the role of his career with the intensity of a ten-inch icepick. You understand if Chloe's tycoon father Alec Hewett (Brian Cox) takes a shine to the young up-and-comer: Chris has the look of a thoroughbred determined to win. Allen seems familiar with every thought process going on beneath Chris' upwardly mobile hide; he seems to have unearthed the character from some deeply unpleasant recess of his psyche (I always knew Allen was screwed up, I never thought he was this screwed up)--the embodiment of Allen's dearest wish-fulfillment fantasies, locked in a life-and-death struggle with his Jewish sense of guilt.
What makes Chris so maddeningly magnetic is that he seems to have an equally compelling need to self-destruct, and the agent of his potential downfall is Nola. He pursues Chloe, a skyrocketing career,and Nola with considerable ferocity, and if he pursues Nola with a touch more determination, that's because she's more elusive (Mr. Hewett, pleased with the way his son-in-law pleases his daughter, practically hands Chris his career on a silver platter). Chris' face has the impassivity of Buster Keaton, so intent on performing intricate jokes he forgets to crack a smile; in Chris' case he's so intent on climbing the social ladder and on his balancing act he forgets to have a normal life (he's probably too tense to ejaculate sperm into Chloe, is why he has trouble getting her pregnant).
The final portion of the film is framed and told like a thriller (with a short phantasmic episode straight out of Bergman), and it's here that Rhys-Meyer really comes into his own; he runs, he fumbles, he cries hysterically, and it's all the perfectly modulated portrait of a calculating intelligence barely in control of the whirlwind of events that will determine the rest of his life. There's even this terrific moment--I won't say what, except it involves him staring down into a small notebook--where Chris is thrown into a serious loop; he recovers (barely), improvises brilliantly, then brings the performance home with all flags waving. Allen--who once in a while knows a gold nugget when he sees one--just locks the camera down and keeps the lens pointed at Rhys-Meyers, and I think it's one of the best pieces of acting I've seen in years.
I wish I could say the same of Johanssen, but I've never thought women were a strong suit in Allen's writing (I know he wrote Annie Hall--but that's as much about Allen's loneliness and insecurities as it was Keaton's, if not more), and Nola here is a barely plausible erotic cypher, more a plot function than a fully working human being. Rhys-Meyers is the whole movie (ably supported, I thought, by Cox, Mortimer, and the rest of the British cast), and it's telling that the Academy doesn't even give him an Oscar nomination (Oscars are for noble people--sufferers and the mentally handicap being especially blessed). Forget Hoffman, Ledger, Strathairn; this is the performance of the year, and the best Allen since--oh, I don't know, Purple Rose of Cairo.
A final point: most people watching the film come away with a vivid impression of just how important luck is in our lives; I came away with a slightly different view--that a combination of hard work and intelligence (and maybe a little self-restraint) will get you very far, and much more consistently, than luck ever will, and Rhys-Meyers' Chris (who qualified his little speech on luck to include hard work) actually proves that very point by working very hard to rise to his position (and working equally hard to keep it). It's just in that one-out-of-a-hundred moment that luck really comes into play, and it can either raise the results of all that effort and smarts beyond anyone else's reach, or dash it all to the ground in an instant.