January 11, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

In recent years, Woody Allen’s movies have grown encrusted with mannerism, set less inside the real world than in the twee Upper East Side of his mind. Now he has rediscovered himself, and reality, too. To call Match Point Allen’s comeback would be an understatement: It’s the most vital return to form for any director since Robert Altman made The Player. The film’s tone — knowing, sexy, controlled, not at all jokey — has something to do with the London setting, and also with the fact that the lead actor, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, hasn’t been asked to mimic Woody’s fumbling Brooklyn tics from 30 years ago or the anxiety beneath them. Match Point isn’t a tale of ”neurosis.” It’s a serious and lusciously entertaining adultery drama driven by a lust that turns into authentic compulsion.

You know Allen has found a way back to common experience, that he’s remembered what it looks and feels like, the moment Chris Wilton (Rhys Meyers), a good-but-not-good-enough Irish tennis star, recently retired from the championship circuit, takes a job as a club pro and rents a tattered flat in London. He can’t believe how high the rent is, and the broker, with his pushy East End accent, only adds insult to economic injury. Immediately, Match Point hooks us with the silken ambition of its hero, a young climber with style and wit and enough brains to keep a hood over his appetites. When he befriends Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), a rich kid who leads a charmed life, and starts to date his sister, the lovely, conventional Chloe (Emily Mortimer), it’s a mutual courtship: the ”innocent” outsider submitting to the hospitality of his hosts, when it’s really he who’s doing the seducing, flattering them by playing the part of the perfect guest.

Rhys Meyers, with rock-star lips and eyebrows serious enough to rival Montgomery Clift’s, has a flushed sensuality that can look, by turns, debonair or depressed. We glimpse the hunger beneath his mask, even when it turns to silent, simmering jealousy. At the Hewetts’ estate, Chris walks into a Ping-Pong game, and there he meets Nola (Scarlett Johansson), an aspiring actress who is American, troubled, and gorgeous in a come-hither way that suggests a cross between Veronica Lake and Jenna Jameson. She is, in a word, irresistible; she is also Tom’s fiancée.

Johansson gives her a faintly husky voice, a looking-for-trouble carnality that’s all the more potent for emerging from a vaguely unsettled nature. Yet even as Nola, who drinks and flirts too much, occupies the role of fatal-attraction bad girl, she can’t really be pigeonholed that way; a quality of decency, of buried romantic longing, shines through her promiscuous allure. She and Chris are both outsiders in a world of privilege. He puts the moves on her — he literally has no choice about it. Yet his instincts keep him on the fast track to marry Chloe and take a job at one of her dad’s finance firms. For this poor Irish kid, that’s a compulsion too — the lust for upward mobility. The movie depends on our recognizing what Chris, tragically, only half does: that his desire for Nola is the real thing, passion — true love embedded in the urgency of hormones.

Match Point isn’t labored, like Crimes and Misdemeanors, and there isn’t a false note in it — not a snob wisecrack out of place, not a character who sags into stereotype. Allen doesn’t fall into the trap of mocking these high-life Brits, with their horses and hunts and round-the-clock drinks; they may be complacent, but they have sharp eyes and good hearts. They’re honest in their enjoyment of wealth. The apartment that Chloe’s father (Brian Cox), in his controlling benevolence, purchases for Chris and Chloe is so gorgeous it’s a joke — a window-walled duplex overlooking the Thames — only Allen isn’t using the real estate as a backdrop. He’s made a film that embraces the addictive taste of money.

At the Hewett compound, Chris tries to keep Nola at bay on his cell phone, and we register, with a shudder, what a fearless, instinctive liar he is. He wants comfort and his romantic-erotic candy. It’s a doomed quest, but such is the primal magic of movies that we’re in his shoes, taking every squirmy step along with him. I can’t think of another film that has caught the devious anxiety (or turn-on) of adultery with such close-up honesty. Rhys Meyers makes Chris a sympathetic slime, giving him a dozen shades of yearning, sweat, and deceit. When he takes drastic action, we’re divided between pure horror at what he does and a desire to see him get away with it. Match Point, a meditation on crime and luck, has the design — the formal elegance — of a thriller, yet it has been made with a sublime eye for why people do what they do that marks it as Allen’s finest movie since Manhattan.

2006 Oscar Nomination: Best Original Screenplay (Woody Allen)

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