Directed by:Woody Allen
40 years ago, a writer for Sid Caesar's then-popular television show bought a Japanese action flic entitled International Secret Police: Key of Keys, dubbed in an entirely new script involving a secret recipe for egg salad and renamed it. What's Up, Tiger Lily? launched the prolific directorial career of Woody Allen and unleashed his comedic talents on unsuspecting movie audiences. Before Mel Brooks brought us the chaotic style of Blazing Saddles, (prefiguring today's social-commentary style of comedy) there was the bespectacled Mr. Allen, casting his jaundiced eye on our culture's accepted pomposities. Four decades on, Allen departs from the self-referential tendencies which have clogged too many of the movies following his directorial debut with this wickedly cynical take on chance, morality and retribution. While it has taken him a long time to return to the top of his early form, the wait was worth it. The wages of sin have never been presented with such damning attraction.
Blue-collar tennis pro Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) gives up an unpromising future on the tour to teach at an up-scale club in London. One of his students, Tom Hewett, (Matthew Goode) invites his instructor to the opera where Chris meets Tom’s parents and sister Chloe, (Emily Mortimer). One whiff of the good life and the upwardly mobile Wilton takes it from there, ingrating himself with the Tom's family, bedding Chloe and lusting after Tom's fiancée Nola (Scarlett Johansson) in the process. Marriage, adultery & inconvenient pregnancy ensue, providing Wilton with a terrible moral choice. Not between honesty and deceit, that would be too easy. The weary lover must decide which woman to eliminate from his life- - and how.
Working as usual from his own story and script, Allen provides a delicious tale of perversely immoral success here, aided principally by the talents of Rhys-Meyers as the quietly appealing tennis player who can rationalize anything and the smoldering Johansson as his stunningly self-centered mistress. Rhys-Meyers is so pretty he borders on the effeminate; the director was wise to place the action in England, where his male lead's crisp diction, elegant dress and polite, diffident manner don't belie his sexual orientation. Rhys-Meyers creates such an appealing personality for this character that his slide into ethical chaos seems far more reasonable than it ought to be, surely just what Allen intended. It helps that Nora provides such irresistible temptation; Johansson infuses her with the nonchalance of youthful beauty undercut by the anxieties formed by a failed career in acting and a pair of previous relationships that have left her both jaded and dependent on male adoration for a sense of self-worth. Smart enough to know her own vulnerability but selfish enough to employ her sexuality for short-term re-affirmation, she's a road-wreck waiting to happen and the forbidden excitement of an affair with her finance's tennis coach is just the ticket she needs for relief from the stress of dealing with her own inadequacies.
Johansson's previous roles have roamed from the cleverly constructed (Lost In Translation, The Girl With The Pearl Earring) to the conventional, (The Island, In Good Company) but she displays terrific sensuality along with real subtly here, sending her lover a perfectly balanced set of mixed signals highlighted by a scene in which she slowly grows simultaneously tipsy and flirtatious. Nora is an attention-getting part and this smart actress makes the most of it.
As Tom and Chloe, Good and Mortimer provide just the right touch of refined, upper class vacuous-ness; elegant consumers of vintage wines, classical music and Mediterranean vacations, they inhabit a world of carefully pampered indulgence without being unduly crass in the process. Easy to like but hard to admire, they provide perfect foils for Wilton's boundless appetites. The rest of the small cast supports the principals flawlessly.
Allen provides a wonderful O-Henry-esque plot twist to wrap up his bad-guys-do- indeed-win story; it's perfectly set up by the voice-over which accompanies the opening scene in the film, underscoring the director's oft-stated belief that life, in the final analysis, signifies nothing. The director is American comedy's personification of the 19th century German philosopher Freidrich Neichtze; life's a joke and often a very cruel one at that. The sooner we fess up to that deeply unsatisfying reality the director implies, the more clearly we'll see the world for what it is. When Allen marries that worldview to his schlemiel personality on celluloid, the results can be annoying, as many of his more recent movies have been. After his early successes, (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah & Her Sisters) his audiences have steadily shrunk; this one should turn the box-office around and prove that his future may lie behind, rather than in front of, the camera.
The verdict? A handsomely mounted, mordantly funny film that's smart enough to make its point with enough subtlety to make it really interesting.
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