Woody Allen’s best movie in years means to trip us up: Sexual sizzle. London instead of Manhattan. Brit actors. Dark humor with a sting that leaves welts. You bet it’s a change. And it looks good on the Woodman, who doesn’t act in the film but writes and directs with a bristling newfound energy. True Allenphiles, however, will have no trouble recognizing the subversive themes that coursed through his 1989 groundbreaker, Crimes and Misdemeanors.
Chris Wilton, an Irish social climber played with lethal charm by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, is a former tennis pro coaching at a posh club. He finds his mark in a friendly pupil, Tom Hewett (the excellent Matthew Goode). Tom has a pretty sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer), eager to bed Chris, and a corporate giant of a father, Alec (Brian Cox), who’d be only too happy to find room at the top of the family business for a book-loving, opera-worshipping future son-in-law. The snake in this Eden is Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), an American actress whose struggle to make it on the London stage is softened by enjoying the privileges that come with being Tom’s plaything of a fiancee. Johansson is tart and terrific, exuding enough come-on carnality to singe the screen. Chris feels the heat. Before long they’re screwing like rabbits in a field, in the rain yet.
The effect of this mesmerizing mind teaser is spellbinding. But if you think you know where it’s going, think again. Allen’s satiric jabs at the British upper crust — Chloe’s joy in the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber is a royal put-down — soon give way to a meditation on a world where luck plays a greater role than an absent God. Will Chris kill to maintain his place in the sun? Allen evokes Dostoevsky and Dreiser, but don’t expect justice from a shocker ending that manages to be devilishly clever and morally repugnant. It’s been a long time since a Woody Allen film sparked juicy debate. Savor it.