MATCH POINT (2005)
Direction and screenplay: Woody Allen
Cast: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer, Matthew Goode, Brian Cox, Penelope Wilton
Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Match Point
If Alfred Hitchcock were to direct a screenplay written by Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and Stanislaw Lem, and based on Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, the result would be something like Woody Allen’s latest opus, Match Point. A dark fable about the vagaries of chance in a godless world, Allen’s straightforward, aesthetically old-fashioned crime drama belies a hauntingly complex turn-of-the-millennium sensibility.
Set in London, the basic plot of Match Point replicates certain key elements found in Dreiser’s An American Tragedy: After experiencing the joys of wealth and high social standing (read: power), an ambitious petit bourgeois resorts to whatever it takes to maintain his newfound status.
Between the lines of its critique of class inequality and materialism, Match Point dissects a whole array of human emotions — love, lust, devotion, deceit, guilt, generosity, selfishness — reaching the conclusion that, in the final scheme of things, what we do, think, and feel have only a relatively small effect on the outcome of our lives. In Allen’s London, chance meetings, chance neighbors, and chance thieves are supposed to play a more important part in the destiny of its denizens than their own deeds, whether good or evil.
"The man who said ‘I’d rather be lucky than good,’" explains Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) in the film’s first scene, "saw deeply into life." As a tennis ball travels in slow motion between the two sides of a net, the narrator continues, "People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It’s scary to think so much is out of one’s control. There are moments in a match when the ball hits the top of the net and for a split second it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward and you win … or maybe it doesn’t, and you lose."
Hard work, we learn right away, will take you only as far as luck will allow it. That point, in fact, is quietly — and cleverly — reiterated near the end of Match Point, but with a radically different significance.
Luck is what Chris Wilton needs. A former tennis pro who was never good enough to become a champ, the carefully manicured Chris has now resorted to giving tennis lessons to wealthy Londoners in order to make ends meet.
As luck would have it, one of his students turn out to be Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), a friendly, upper-class chap who takes a liking to Chris, especially after discovering their mutual love of opera. Although it may seem at first that a homosexual romance will follow, what actually happens is that Tom’s pretty sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer), immediately becomes enamored of the hunky Chris, who besides being familiar with Verdi’s music also happens to enjoy classical literature. (At one point, he’s reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.) Shortly thereafter, the two become engaged.
All seems to be going well for Chris, including a new job at the firm of the Hewett patriarch, Alec (Brian Cox); the only glitch is that Chris has fallen madly in lust with Tom’s girlfriend, Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), a struggling American actress with both a checkered past and lips as full and sensuous as his own. Known as an aggressive player on the tennis court, the Irishman Chris is no less aggressive in English drawing rooms.
Therein lies Chris’ moral conflict. In addition to the financial and professional prospects Chloe and her family have to offer, Chris seems to genuinely like Chloe — while pining for the body of her brother’s girlfriend. On a rainy afternoon at the Hewett’s country estate, he finally manages to satisfy his sexual urges, but Nola disappears from view after she and Tom part ways.
Months later, a chance encounter brings Chris, now a married man, and Nola together again. At first reluctant to resume their sexual liaison, Nola eventually relents. They begin a torrid affair that will have tragic consequences.
Allen’s creatures in Match Point are supposed to come across as pawns of destiny. Much of what they do is beyond their control, whether blindly falling in love with a man who happens to lust after another woman, or becoming sexually obsessed with a neurotic American actress. "Chance genetic (or socially conditioned) behavior," one might call it.
Along those philosophical lines, one crucial element in Match Point is that Allen never turns either Chris or Nola into outright villains. Chris remains an ambiguous entity throughout. We may suspect but can never quite tell for sure if his love of opera and classical literature is genuine, or if it’s merely a calculated attempt to improve his social status; additionally, it’s never quite clear how much Chris actually cares for Chloe. Nola, for her part, is both pursued and pursuer, while Chloe and her family are hardly a bunch of spoiled rich idiots. In fact, they are generous and open-minded, even if terrible judges of character.
Part of the credit for such complexities goes to Allen, who’s able to delve into human behavior that is as old as time, but that in Match Point feels as fresh as today’s news. The rest of the credit goes to his capable cast.