Woody Allen’s treatise on luck vs. good never approaches the net much less produces an ace. The ingredients hold promise, but the conceit soon wears thin even as the love story shifts into thriller accompanied by scratchy operatic gems and a non mega-hit musical.
“All that I wanted is mine now,” most certainly rings true to Irish tennis instructor Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, whose silent anguish is one of the few highlights). He teaches his way into the rich and privileged Hewett clan, improving Tom’s (Matthew Goode) serve, dating Chloe (Emily Mortimer) and wiling his way into the good graces of industrialist father Alec (Brian Cox) and G&T devotee mother Eleanor (Penelope Wilton). But before you can say “welcome to the family,” Chris is giving a private showing of his wayward racket to Tom’s fiancée, Nola (Scarlett Johansson, who starts off brilliantly but becomes shackled by protesting dialogue and shrinking rather than growing character development).
Overall, Jim Clay’s production design and Caroline Smith’s sets are beautifully captured by Remi Adefarasin’s camera, but the trip to Covent Garden (everybody loves Verdi!) for La Traviata rang false: the orchestra had been sent home in favour of a budget-saving piano. Much of that is redeemed by Alisa Lepselter’s sensitive editing, particularly the transition from snow on the windowsill of the illicit lovers to roses of the country estate two seasons hence.
At its best, Allen’s dialogues are exquisitely crafted volleys, where the couples try to gain advantage through persistence and steady returns before an unexpected smash or lob scores convincingly. The problem lies in the relationships between Chris and his supporting characters.
After marrying Chloe, the fabled couple can’t conceive: no luck in the sack, bring out the thermometers. Tom dumps the struggling, sensuous actor-wannabe Nola in favour of a hotter date. After a spell of exile back in Colorado, Nola returns and relights Chris’ libido with a vengeance. Their torrid affair heats up even as he and his long-suffering wife plod through the job of sex. Soon, Chris is snagged in his own web of deceit, at work, at home and in the boudoir. But no one catches on. Chloe blames herself and opens a gallery to fill the time, father-in-law guarantees any financial losses and Nola waits forever for her man to “do the right thing!”
All of that serves as the back-story to Chris’ breaking point. Finally about to become a father, he plots a gruesome solution to all of his problems and risks everything only to be rewarded by an evening of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Surely that’s punishment enough!
Many operas are built on much shakier premises, but survive the test of time through the magnificence of the music. With so much opera-evoking memories of performances-past filling the speakers, Allen has unwittingly weakened his own craft, which seldom manages to sing.
The cast try their best, but save and except for Rhys-Meyers, can’t escape the failure of the libretto to bring home the truth. Must be the luck of the Irish. JWR