Johansson serves up fine acting in 'Match Point'

Scarlett Johansson stars as an American actress in London in Woody Allen's "Match Point."

Published: Friday, January 27, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 26, 2006 at 11:14 p.m.


Match Point

STARS: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Matthew Good, Emily Mortimer
THEATER: Butler Plaza

Over the past few years, Scarlett Johansson has generated lots of buzz for performances that were less accomplished than charismatic. She seemed to be an actress with lovely looks and an intriguingly throaty voice but little demonstrable depth. It's fascinating, then, that Johansson's watershed performance comes in a film by Woody Allen, known for young female characters with lovely looks, high-pitched voices and no demonstrable depth.
Her work in Allen's intoxicating "Match Point" establishes Johansson as one of the most exciting young actresses around. Johansson's part as a struggling American actress living in London appears to have been written for someone older than she is. But she uses that to her advantage. She invests her character, Nola, with soul. Indeed, Nola seems to be the only character with real soul in a story streaked with amorality and entitlement.
In one of the picture's more indelible moments, Nola is having a drink with her fiance's sister's boyfriend, Chris (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), who regards Nola with barely bridled lust. She's telling him about her sister, back in Colorado, who is beautiful but unstable. He, of course, doesn't give a whit about the sister, instead seizes on the opportunity to say that the sister can't be more beautiful than Nola. She corrects him, saying "What I am is sexy," with Johansson imparting all the privilege - and the burden - that comes with being the constant object of men's attention.
Allen gives Johansson and his other young actors a showcase by getting out of their way. In England, the class system is even more entrenched than it is on Allen's beloved Upper East Side of Manhattan. Class, along with attraction, is what seems to bond Nola with Chris (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a club tennis pro from humble Irish origins, when they first meet. Nola is engaged to Tom (Matthew Goode), whose sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) takes a shine to Chris after Tom invites him to their super-rich parents' country estate.
Chris is so polite with Tom, Chloe and their parents that he's nearly inscrutable, but Rhys-Meyers shows a different side after his character first encounters Nola.
Acts of violence will occur in "Match Point," but things are tense throughout, heightened by the film's opera score. Tom and Chloe's mother, played by the gloriously withering Penelope Wilton, is awful to Nola, questioning the American actress' talent as well as her drive.
This confrontation leads into a highly charged scene in the rain between Nola and Chris, whose actions are as inadvisable as the weather is inclement. Who knew Allen could craft such a sexy scene?
In risking a tryst, Chris is playing with his future. Tom and Chloe's indulgent father (Brian Cox) has taken a shine to the self-improving Chris. Goode embodies the most charming kind of rich guy. Witty and friendly and inclusive, Tom wants everyone to share his good fortune. When he tires of people, he drops them, without ever dropping his blithe air. He's just exerting his inalienable right, as someone born rich and handsome, to do exactly as he pleases. Allen explores the cultural and physical geography of London along with the social landscape. "Match Point" gives a sense of what it's like to be young, curious and wealthy in a wonderful city. Chris travels from the green lawns and ivy-covered buildings surrounding his tennis club to the wood-paneled restaurants patronized by monied Londoners. As "Match Point" progresses, the settings grow starker, from the Tate Modern gallery to the glass-walled loft overlooking the Thames where Chris nestles with Chloe. It's actually not much of a place for nestling, underscoring Chris' restlessness as Allen ratchets up the anxiety.
Mortimer, who possesses the sweetest face of any adult, isn't served by the role of Chloe, who is either incredibly naive or willfully ignores the signs that Chris isn't what he seems. The goodness Mortimer naturally exudes combines with Chloe's perkiness for a character easy to dismiss. However, Allen seems out of his element in scenes in the corporate world. Chris supposedly wows Chloe's dad's associates, but instead of staging a scene where Chris displays his acumen, Allen takes the easier way out, focusing on the trappings of a high-powered business career, such as a swank office and a hired car.
But there are no false moments in Rhys-Meyers' scenes with Johansson, whose character grows more vulnerable as circumstances swirl out of control. At one point, a character remarks that Nola, fond of drinking and smoking, is starting to look rough around the edges. This seems ridiculous, with the dewy Johansson playing the role. Yet it's not ridiculous, because Johansson shows that Nola's troubles emanate from the inside out. They are the kind of troubles that spring from ignoring one's best instincts, and the damage they incur is far worse than a few lines around the eyes.

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