Witty Returns 

Woody Allen serves an ace with "Match Point."

I'll have to apologize no more: "Match Point" is nearly perfect, a "Crimes and Misdemeanors" for the aughts, done, inexplicably and most unexpectedly, British-style. It's a thriller, and it's a darkly black comedy that's effortless in its attempts to be funny. It is Allen's best work since the mid-'80s.

Twenty years is a long time to wait for a masterpiece, but "Match Point" is worth it. The setup is traditional and unsurprising, belying the sophisticated film that follows. Chris (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) is a former pro tennis player who never really hit it big. Now he's weighing his next move, and a job as the tennis pro at a ritzy club seems to be the logical — if not the only — choice.

In short order he falls in with Tom (Matthew Goode), the son of an extremely wealthy London tycoon (Brian Cox), and Tom's sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer), who is instantly smitten. Tom is betrothed to the luscious Nola (Scarlett Johansson, the only American in the cast), a struggling actress who's obviously come to the wrong part of the world to get her big break. Partly because of attraction, partly because of a sense of financial gain (one of the movie's many charms is its delightful ambiguity about Chris' motivations), Chris is soon married to Chloe but is carrying on a torrid affair with Nola (now split from Tom), who's overstuffed with sexuality in the way that only Scarlett Johansson can be.

What develops is a story of love vs. money: Will Chris stay with Chloe or leave her for Nola? More to the point, what exactly is he going to do with that shotgun?

"Match Point" creeps up on you seductively and slowly. It never announces its intentions, a problem of many thrillers and one that Allen has had in over-the-top fare like "Deconstructing Harry" and "Mighty Aphrodite," with its chorus of masked narrators commenting excruciatingly on the plot. Here, Allen puts the tricks and gimmicks aside, and he lets the film tell the story on its own. Allen jumps in and out of scenes, showing us little snippets of his characters' lives to give us just enough information and no more. He skips ahead with no warning, months, years at a time. It's up to us to fill in the blanks, which is ultimately very rewarding to the attentive viewer. You won't have trouble following the plot, mind you: There's nothing confusing and no mystery to solve. It's more like a chess game or, dare I say, a tennis match.

The tennis setting is only a small part of what makes one recall Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train," an equally masterful film that, believe it or not, isn't quite as satisfying as "Match Point" when we reach the final scene. Hitchcock ultimately pulled his last punch. Allen follows through with a hit that still has me reeling. I was certain I saw the ending coming a mile away, and I was dead wrong.

But "Match Point" is more than a good thriller. It's also really, really funny. Part of it is traditional British comedy (something I had assumed Allen knew nothing about); part of it is just the absurdity of the situation Chris finds himself in. You can almost see the gears turning in his head, and as Nola becomes more and more insistent that he leave Chloe, you may even ask yourself what you would do in that situation. Sure, jealous lovers have been turned into films before, but rarely this memorably.

No matter what you think of Woody Allen — his classic movies or his more recent films — that opinion will irrevocably change for the better after seeing "Match Point." (R) 124 min. **** S



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