After Match Point debuted at Cannes, the word spread that this was a different kind of Woody Allen film than what he'd been making lately—more polished, more assured, and, believe it or not, a thriller. But initially, Match Point doesn't live up to its reputation. It does look fantastic, but that's mostly because Allen has moved his location from well-traveled Manhattan to the streets and suburbs of London, where his typically tasteful framing suits the hedges and manses. The mostly British cast fits less comfortably. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers plays a country-club tennis pro who befriends wealthy client Matthew Goode and starts dating his sister Emily Mortimer, even though he's really taken with Goode's fiancée, a coarse American actress played by Scarlett Johansson. For about the first hour of Match Point, the romantic entanglements play out pretty much like any other Woody Allen drama, with people blurting out feelings of lust and jealousy in unnatural-sounding speeches that for some reason sound even odder when spoken with an accent.
Then something happens. It would spoil the movie to say what it is, but just when the seemingly endless scenes of Johansson's nagging threaten to sink Match Point for good, the movie becomes the thriller that early reports promised. Allen hangs onto his wit throughout the film, albeit subtly, as in an early scene where the actress and the tennis pro trade come-ons over a game of ping-pong. But once the movie takes its turn, nearly every scene becomes a nervously comic variation of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," with guilty people carrying around evidence that implicates them.
Allen opens Match Point with the image of a tennis ball hitting the net, and after a lot of casual conversations about the role that luck plays in shaping a life, the movie simplifies in its second half, becoming about one simple question: On which side of the net is that ball going to fall? The image repeats later—this time with a ring that hits a guardrail—and at that point, the movie really could've ended with a hard ironic twist. Instead, Allen presses on, with blunt expository scenes that that seem to oversell his point about how luck can turn. But through all the sags and repetition, Allen gets somewhere genuinely unexpected. Hang all the hand-wringing over why some people get all the lucky breaks. Allen ends Match Point with a more beguiling and complicated question: What does "lucky" even mean?