Victoria Segal - A load of balls

Film - Angst-ridden veteran makes a hash of his London debut. By Victoria Segal

Match Point (12

Woody Allen might have made a career out of his neuroses, but his demons should be appeased by the amount of goodwill he is still capable of generating. Forget the scandals, ignore the lacklustre films such as 2004's Melinda and Melinda - there is still a desperate desire to see the best in Allen's work. Given how frequently it has been heralded with such excitable benevolence, Allen could have given his latest award-winning film, Match Point, the subtitle "a return to form". His first film set in London, it boasts a young, pretty, something-for-everyone cast. As enter-tainment, however, it just slams limply into the net every time.

Shave away the goodwill and the relief that nothing could ever be as bad as his 1997 film Deconstructing Harry, and the best you can say of Match Point is that at least Allen is not actually in it, creepily romancing his new female lead, Scarlett Johansson. It sets itself up to be a work of huge moral and philosophical depth, an exploration of the idea that hell is not so much other people as our own weak and evil selves. Yet it's not long before the viewer starts to feel trapped in a hell of Allen's making.

At first, it's hard to predict just how ludicrous things are going to get, because Match Point starts off like a low-key version of the tennis comedy Wimbledon. Then, suddenly, it makes a Wile E Coyote-style lurch into bloody melodrama as it cannibalises the plot of Allen's earlier film Crimes and Misdemeanours. The anti-hero, Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), is "a poor boy from Ireland" whose tennis skills have given him access to the finer things in life. He is charming, he likes opera and in one scene he is even shown reading Crime and Punishment. There are motorway service stations signposted with more subtlety. It is not long before his charms arouse the interest of his pupil Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), who introduces him to his wealthy mother (Penelope Wilton) and father (Brian Cox). Soon this hungry outsider is spending nights at the opera with his rich new friends, courting Tom's sister, the sweet but needy Chloe (Emily Mortimer), and being groomed as a son-in-law and company man. Unfortunately, Chris quickly becomes besotted with Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), Tom's American fiancee, and their torrid affair threatens Chris's new-found security.

For all the excitement about the new lease of life Allen has found in a different city, you have to wonder how a man who has made New York look so wonderful can make London look so grim. This is a city of people who hang out at the tennis club and the opera and well-padded restaurants in an atmosphere of sterile gentrification. It might be a deliberate attempt to convey moral bankruptcy, were it not for the obvious misfires.

Johansson's character, a struggling actress working as a shop assistant, relocates to a flat in a "cheap" neighbourhood where the mice roam free. A quick glimpse outside, however, shows that Allen himself might be hard-pushed to afford a bedsit here. At one point, Chloe and Chris walk past Horse Guards Parade. It's like one of those old Rank films where a red bus goes past Big Ben. Any more "British" and you expect Austin Powers to pass by, mid dance routine.

London is not the only aspect of this film that lacks credibility. The dialogue is equally stilted, possibly because the characters find it hard to get it out through their stiff upper lips. At one point, Mortimer's hapless Chloe says she could show Chris around London because "I grew up in Belgravia" - a sentence nobody has ever really uttered in the history of the world. "Did anyone ever tell you that you have very sensual lips?" Chris asks Nola, a chat-up line that aims for smouldering sexuality but ends up sounding slightly less classy than "How do you like your eggs in the morning?"

The only thing flatter than the dialogue is Jonathan Rhys Meyers's performance as the unpleasant Chris. Chris is a cold fish, but Meyers is so wooden that Allen could have purchased him from Ikea. Forget the existential tragedy; the lack of sexual chemistry between him and Johansson is this film's fatal flaw. The sex scenes are performed with agricultural gracelessness. The first, in a rain-soaked field, so lacks erotic frisson, you expect David Attenborough to emerge from the wheat with a commentary.

Against the odds, however, Johansson manages to give a credible performance as the sexy, troubled and - significantly - very American Nola. She does indeed have very sensual lips; you just wouldn't be so crass as to mention it to her. Still, she has to struggle with a misogynistic role as the shrill bunny-boiling love interest, the bad girl who ends up punished.

Match Point lumbers towards a "shocking" conclusion, but the only shocking thing here is the jolting and grinding as Allen shifts through the gears into melodrama. He got one thing right, though: for this director, Match Point is another cinematic crime, while for the viewer it is something of a punishment.

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2006 issue of the New Statesman, The death of freedom