In Stardust Memories, Woody Allen’s character refers to his mother’s cooking as putting food through the “deflavorizing machine.” His latest movie feels as though he has taken his complex and powerful Crimes and Misdemeanors abd put it through a deflavorizing machine. It raises many of the same themes, but it is flatter, more superficial, less heartfelt, and less involving. Fans who have been disappointed with Allen’s lightweight, almost listless recent films have called this his best film in years, but it is just a weaker version of his favorite themes. Changing the location (and the accents) from Manhattan to England (a decision made for tax reasons, not artistic ones) and substituting opera for jazz creates only the semblence of substance, a cinematic emperor’s new clothes.
It begins with a nod to luck, the force that determines outcomes from a tennis ball’s being in or out to a chance meeting that leads to love or heartbreak.
Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers of Bend it Like Beckham) is a professional tennis player who was never quite good enough. So he take a job as a teenis pro at a luxurious country club.
He meets and hits it off with Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), the son of a wealthy family. Their common interests in tennis and opera land Chris an invitation to the Hewett’s estate, where he meets Tom’s sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer) and Tom’s American fiancee, Nola (Scarlett Johansson), an actress. Chloe likes Chris. Chris likes Nola.
But Nola is not available. And marriage to Chloe means a very comfortable life with a beautiful and generous woman who is devoted to him. So Chris marries Chloe, and her father finds him a job that pays much better than tennis.
And then Nola is available. She and Tom break up, and she and Chris begin to have an affair. He is enthralled by her. But things change, and she becomes an inconvenience. Is Nola worth giving up everything Chloe and her family have given him?
I can accept that what appears to be arbitrary in the script is intended to illustrate the role of luck and chance. But there is no such justification for the thinly written roles of the characters. The females in particular are just narrative conveniences. They exist for no other reason than to put Chris into various contrivances of the plot. And there’s no reason other than financial to set the story in England, except maybe switching from New York ersatz country squire a la Ralph Lauren to the real thing.
The whole question of the movie’s theme is suspect as well. Is it really a matter of luck whether a tennis ball is inside or outside of the line? Isn’t the whole idea of athletic competition based on the premise that it is a matter of skill? Is it a matter of luck or judgment that a man decides to have an affair or commit a crime? Chris goes from being a tennis pro to the cushy job his father-in-law finds for him without any effort whatsoever.
We are supposed to believe that Chris has no problem whatsoever in performing satisfactorily (not better than anyone else but certainly more than adequately). This feels less like a portrayal of luck than like a lazy short-cut, and one that undermines the power of the movie’s themes, for all its efforts to leverage operatic sweep. The lucky one here is Allen, whose change of venue has dazzled his long-waiting fans into thinking he has returned to form. It’s just a net ball.
Parents should know that this is a serious and tragic film with a character who cheats, lies, and murders to get what he wants. The film includes some strong language, drinking and smoking, as well as brief but shocking and explicit violence and sexual references and situations.
Families who see this movie should talk about experiences they have had that made them think about the importance of luck and what they think will happen to Chris in the future.
Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate Crimes and Misdemeanors and the classic film A Place in the Sun, based on Theodore Dreiser’s book An American Tragedy.