Match Point May 11, 2016
I’ll take a clean-cut hero of the Atticus Finch kind any day, but much more engaging is a scoundrel. From Walter White to Tony Montana, there’s something iniquitously entrancing about watching a serpent of a man commit bad while others stand by hopelessly, knowing that putting an end to his well-oiled sins is next to unthinkable. A fraction of us goes along with his evils because a downfall is something we’re interested in witnessing. But another is invested in seeing just how many bad things our scoundrel can do within the constraints of a piece of entertainment, wondering if he’ll get away with his misdoings and never really be stopped.
2005’s Match Point, written and directed by Woody Allen, is an immersive study of one of those aforementioned excuses of a man, but less glorified are his immoral ways. As he’s an everyman and not an elevated cinematic figure, we’re riveted in regards to how long he can maintain his narcissistic cool, how long he can continue on the path of a viper before he’s caught and spat upon.
A morally tangled drama Match Point is, and, as the years go by, it seems to increasingly announce itself as being among Allen’s most seminal works. Not because I like it as much as Hannah and Her Sisters or Bullets Over Broadway, mind you, but because it betrays his usual comedic comfort zone in trade of seriousness only seen rarely in a career of humanistic, usually inviting gems. Over Allen’s decades old career, we’ve seen him try his hand at the dramatic through such chamber pieces as 1978’s Interiors and 2007’s Cassandra’s Dream (though I’m sure some would argue that his ‘80s masterpieces were oftentimes earnest, too), but Match Point marks (and still marks) the first time in which his voice isn’t as blatantly obvious, his trademark humor having all but vanished.
It clearly touches upon themes discussed in his 1989 masterwork Crimes and Misdemeanors, but with a cast mostly from the United Kingdom, and with dialogue more understated than neurotic, it’s unlike anything Allen has ever done. Further imposing is that he was seventy-years-old in 2005, an age where many filmmakers aren’t so sure what to do with themselves anymore and therefore repeat themselves.
Match Point stars Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Chris Wilton, a small-time, London-based tennis coach reeling from rejection in the professional area of the sport. With most of his once promising career goals disintegrated, he is currently making a living teaching the rich how to be their very own Serena Williams. He’s comfortable, but something, perhaps a purpose, is missing from his life.
A chance lesson with Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), the son of a successful businessman (Brian Cox), prompts a fast friendship, introduction to the affluent family quick and painless. There’s an attraction between Chris and Tom’s sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer). A flimsy courtship ensues, but not long after does Chris meet Tom’s fiancee, Nola Rice (a spotless Scarlett Johansson), a sultry, blond American attempting to break into the acting industry. Nola likes Chris more than she likes Tom, with Chris liking Nola more than he likes Chloe, but both, not wanting to incite any bad blood within the Hewett family, allow for magnetism to combust into a brief erotic encounter, nothing more.
Chris accepts that his affair with Nola is not meant to last, and so he marries Chloe, though we sense he's doing so out of the promise of comfort, not love. Days later, though, Tom breaks up with Nola; we can feel Chris recoil as he realizes that he could have had a chance with her had patience been a virtue of his being. But romantic hang-ups cannot be dwelled upon now that he’s a newlywed. For now, he’ll have to deal with Chloe, who almost immediately declares that she’d like to have a baby as soon as possible — she has nothing to lose. Chris doesn’t feel so ready, but agrees to her wishes, the impregnation process quick to start but not so prosperous in longterm success.
So we’ll call it bad luck when Nola comes back to the U.K. months later, running into Chris just as his frustrations with his wife begin to grow unbearable. An affair kicks off, but it’s bound to have a similar ending to a cynical film noir. The life of the other woman is often a doomed one, after all.
But I won’t say more, as some of Match Point’s biggest pleasures derive from the way its storyline builds to a breaking point of horrendous unpredictability. It’s a psychological thriller in which all characters act selfishly and questionably, their desires coming first in even the most baleful of situations. At first, Chris appears to be a typical male lead. But as he later descends into detrimental behavior that suggests that he was born to be bad, our preconceived notions regarding his character are thrown away. Nola is a temptress that knows it, unafraid to push buttons; Chloe is a nice but otherwise spoiled rich girl who is distinctly aware of what she wants more than what she loves. Tom, maybe the only individual in the film that doesn’t reek of self-obsession, is so concerned with what others think of him that we sense that he doesn’t actually know himself.
Such knotty characters are nothing new within Allen’s filmography, but unfamiliar is overarching sexiness, dialogue that presents itself as slippery and noiry and not necessarily a reflection of him, and moral ambiguities that ring as much darker than anything he's ever offered. And to go out on a limb in the way Allen does with Match Point is nothing short of risky, all the more provoking considering his age and his iconhood. But a modern cinematic master can only make the most of the challenges inflicted upon himself, and Match Point is a subversion worthy of immediate viewing. A-