The Defector

Photo: Jillian Edelstein/Camera Press/Retna

Cynicism is reality with maybe an alternate spelling,” Woody Allen likes to say. But as with so many curmudgeons, he is not so secretly a romantic—certainly when it comes to his passion-ruled private life, and especially when it comes to his hometown. Given two minutes, most of us could compose and critique our own Woody’s Walking Tour of Manhattan: from the old Thalia Cinema—now Symphony Space—where Alvy Singer and Annie Hall watched The Sorrow and the Pity to the Carnegie Deli of Broadway Danny Rose. So it’s hardly surprising to see that a tourist map has been put out in honor of his new film, but a bit disconcerting to realize that the Match Point Movie Map was issued by the official tourist bureau of London.

Shot in London, Match Point, which opens December 28, is an adulterous thriller about a social-striver tennis pro (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) torn between his love for his wealthy, respectable English wife (Emily Mortimer) and his lust for a messed-up American actress (Scarlett Johansson). If anyone’s swapping lovers, though, it’s Woody Allen, trading our Soho for theirs.

“I really had no trouble substituting London for New York,” Allen has said if not cynically then coldly. He’s already wrapped a second film there: Scoop, a news comedy (not based on Evelyn Waugh’s novel) starring himself, Johansson, and Hugh Jackman, due out next year. And British papers are reporting that he’s preparing a third London movie. One film could have been a fling. Two, an affair. But three? This is getting serious. How can Woody leave us? Oh, yeah, we dumped him first.

Immediately after crowing that New York was “a great movie town … a great place to come and work and make your movies” at the 2002 Oscars, Allen saw his bad New York films Melinda and Melinda, Anything Else, and Hollywood Ending all bomb—even in the city. By 2004, he was humbled to discover that he couldn’t find money to film Match Point here, at least not without serious concessions. Allen, who once said, “There are only two things that you can control in life: art and masturbation,” was suddenly down to one.

Then the BBC threw him a lifeline. They’d help pay for him to film his script—if he’d set the movie in London and use a mostly British cast. Months later, American critics came home from Cannes singing about Woody’s surprising comeback, and Allen is now at the top of top-ten lists for the first time in a decade, with a trifecta of Golden Globe nominations. But can we really call it a comeback? Or did Woody simply get lucky?

To a large extent, your response to Match Point depends on where you live. London critics returned home from Cannes ambivalent, echoing some all-too-familiar critiques. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw criticized the “upscale touristy locations which look as if they were filmed on Planet Curtis,” referring to Notting Hill screenwriter Richard Curtis. The Observer’s Jason Solomons said that the film “takes place in a London that’s recognizable but doesn’t really exist. People pop to Asprey for a jumper, nip to the opera, audition at the Royal Court, then whiz to the country for a spot of shooting. But then, Allen’s vision of Manhattan has never really existed either.”

To which New Yorkers might respond, “Bollocks” (after asking, “What the hell does ‘pop to Asprey for a jumper’ mean?”). Yes, his films have been bad, even terrible, lately, but he did have the city right once—didn’t he? Woody, now our exile, was our ambassador, the talkative apotheosis of New York-ness, suffering wittily in pretty locations through 36 films spilling over with fatalistic punch lines, existential one-liners, and endless riffs on death and loneliness.

Of course, we romanticize early Woody as much as he romanticized New York. Annie Hall or Manhattan didn’t capture a city that was out there any more than his nostalgia films like Radio Days or Broadway Danny Rose nailed their eras. Rather, Allen created his own quirky patina that he layered over the seventies recession and Wall Street eighties, and it was so alluring that we began wearing tweed vests to look like Diane Keaton, or mimicking the neurotic cadences of Woody because we aspired to the life he’d dreamed up—until Mia Farrow found that naked Polaroid of Soon-Yi. It was only around the time that Allen became an embarrassment to himself that he started embarrassing us. And it was shortly after that we began to notice how his vision of New York—sunny cafés, townhouses, and bistros—had become a kind of cinematic gentrification. By the mid-nineties, Alvy Singer had been priced out.

The British critics have reason to complain. Woody’s characters do say things like “Quite right, Papa!” more than seems absolutely necessary, but why should we care? To be too hard on Match Point for its view of London is a bit like criticizing Rear Window for its view of Greenwich Village.

If Match Point is sometimes a crock, at least it’s a fun crock, a marvelously slick and sexy thriller twice as lean as any of Allen’s other recent films—and one that offers Scarlett Johansson the first honest-to-God bright-lights movie-star performance of her career. It’s less ambitious than anything he’s tried in years and better for it. Woody’s traditional three-act film is paced, shot, and plotted elegantly, from the way Rhys Meyers effortlessly befriends a wealthy scion to the old-school manner in which Allen bookends his movie with two mirrored philosophical vignettes about chance. He fights the urge to score laughs when they wouldn’t propel the plot—and by applying the same romantic eye to London that he’s used on New York, he makes the seduction between Johansson and Rhys Meyers appear all the more alluring. The Royal Opera House and Norman Foster’s Gherkin look twice as good as they do on the Travel Channel.

If ‘Match Point’ is sometimes a crock, at least it’s a fun crock—less ambitious than anything Woody’s tried for years, and better for it.

But I fear we’re less likely to end up remembering Match Point as Woody’s comeback than honoring it as his last well-made film. He himself has admitted that he has “learned nothing … no wisdom,” and perhaps we should take him at his word. The plot of his film hinges on how luck can ruin your life or save it—and pure dumb luck is how he ended up in London. Match Point’s revelation is Johansson, but Woody first cast Kate Winslet, and lucked into his new muse only after Winslet dropped out for family reasons.

The film’s fresh locale disguises the fact that Woody is trotting out the same tired old tropes: a man caught between another one of Woody’s flighty young bad girls and another one of Woody’s good boring wives. He subs the Thames for the East River, Verdi for Gershwin—and just how different is this movie from Crimes and Misdemeanors after all?

Still, Woody’s London sojourn allows us to love him again, at least for a while. It’s given him new actors to play with, and the excuse to write—finally—a male lead who doesn’t sound just like him, if only because he has a British accent. What a relief it is, for the first time in years, to be able to relax and enjoy a Woody Allen film. Maybe we both just needed some time apart.

The Defector