It’s a perennial question — “When is Woody Allen going to make a good movie again?” People have been asking it intermittently at least since Interiors, and the inevitable answer is always “Eventually.” He may pop out two, three, even four stinkers in a row, but when a man makes a new movie each year for several decades, it’s like the proverbial typewriting monkeys. The time has come again with Match Point — not a terrific movie, not an Annie Hall or an Everyone Says I Love You, but a good one, a respectable offering from an artist who, after 40 years in film, may still qualify as a “promising talent.” The surprise — and the promise — come from the fact that at this late date he’s trying new things. He’s taken the advice that critics and fans have long been giving: He’s left New York and stopped casting himself and his friends. By entering a world that’s new to him, he’s created a new world in which anything can happen.
Besides its London setting, the first thing that sets Match Point apart from other Woody Allen films is its lead, Jonathan Rhys Meyers. In many ways he’s Allen’s proxy: a poor Irish lad in London trying to fit in amongst his social betters, he’s not unlike a certain Jewish guy from Brooklyn trying to make his way among the privileged WASPs of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Allen has given the character a situation that parallels his own earlier life and a worldview that sounds much like one Allen’s written for himself in past films, but Rhys Meyers has avoided the trap that has ensnared actors from John Cusack to Kenneth Branagh to Will Farrell — he’s playing the male lead in a Woody Allen film without adopting Allen’s own screen persona. Rhys Meyers is never outwardly neurotic and bumbling, in company he retains a mask of earnest affability, but the emotions that race across his features are transparent enough to be at times uncomfortable to watch; from the beginning he makes us privy to both his passive-aggressive manipulations and his misgivings about them, creating almost instant intimacy with the audience. He’s very pensive, seeming always to regret the thing he’s just said or what he knows he’s about to have to say. He brings us into the character by showing that he doesn’t want to be this way; he isn’t comfortable with the role, though he chose to play it.
Rhys Meyers’ Chris Wilton is a former professional tennis player who gets a job as a pro at an exclusive country club as an entree into high society, a way out of his impoverished beginnings. Early on we learn that he hated the touring life, and over time we see why: He wants more than to be a middling success on the courts, always struggling to achieve something higher, he wants to settle down in comfort and luxury. Chris educates himself in preparation for making the right impression in society, reading Crime and Punishment (with the help of The Cambridge Companion to Dostoevskii) and developing a taste for opera. He leverages his operatic interest into a friendship with his tennis student Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), a young man from a wealthy family, who invites him to share a box with his parents, Alec and Eleanor (Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton), and more importantly Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer). Chloe’s an attractive but somewhat plain girl, a bit mousy and charmingly unsure of herself; her spiky features seem always precariously poised, ready to crumble. We see that she’s immediately drawn to the dashing Chris, but she’s dubious that he’d be interested, which he probably wouldn’t be if it weren’t for her family’s money. The Dostoevsky pays off — Chris uses it to impress Cox the first chance he gets — and soon he’s won over the whole family with his charm and ambition.
Match Point isn’t just randomly set in England; it has a fascination with class that’s very British. Cox is a familiar type of aristocratic father, one that goes back at least as far as Austen, bland and vaguely disinterested in his family’s concerns, with his nose usually stuck in a newspaper. While they bicker and fuss all around him, he remains largely unmoved; his idea of asserting himself is suggesting that Eleanor’s had “one too many G&T’s” when her behavior becomes boorish and inappropriate. Eleanor insists that she’s “a great one for facing up to realities,” which means that she insists on sharing her rude opinions with everyone, no matter how unwelcome they may be. Allen enjoys mocking the upper classes, making deadpan jokes at his wealthy characters’ expense, as when pampered Tom is giddily looking forward to seeing The Motorcycle Diaries — a film about Che Guevara’s political awakening, fer Chrissakes — or Chloe, who goes dutifully to the opera but has perhaps been educated above her tastes, gets excited about a trashy Andrew Lloyd Webber operetta, The Woman in White. Allen allows Martin Crewes to wail a single word of the treacly “I Believe My Heart” before cutting away to wailing sirens. He wants you to see the connections between the musical’s story of a gold-digging cad and his own, but he doesn’t want you to have to suffer through Lloyd Webber and lyricist David Zippel’s demonically catchy compositions.
Over a weekend at the Hewetts’ country house, Chris meets Nola (Scarlett Johannson), Tom’s fiancee. Nola’s an American, mysterious, seductive, voluptuous, self-confident and forthright, the opposite of Chloe in every way. Nola is an actress, and she’s cast herself in the role of the classic femme fatale, so sexy the screen practically sweats, and Johannson’s voice here seems even richer and more distinctively American than usual, almost Southern. If she had played the Barbara Stanwyck role in Double Indemnity, Fred MacMurray would have bashed in her husband’s head inside the first 15 minutes. Chris is drawn to Nola, but he’s more drawn to the Hewetts’ money, and he manages to control his impulses for the time being.
Chris and Chloe become involved, and she persuades Alec to help Chris get a better job at “one of his companies,” an entry-level position with room for advancement. Chris’ pride prevents him from acknowledging his poverty to Chloe, he refuses to accept money from her and insists on paying for dates, but he’s willing to accept a hand up from her father when he offers it. Chris believes in luck and hard work, but he knows from his time on the tennis tour that luck is more important, and the Hewetts are just the kind of luck he needs He accepts the position with the mixture of gratitude and silent resentment of a proud man accepting help from a woman, both pleased by the opportunity and embarrassed by the condescension implicit in the Hewetts’ generosity. He becomes addicted to the trappings of wealth, though he’s miserable in his new life as an office drone. Chris is a climber but he doesn’t see himself as ruthless; he doesn’t yet know what he’s capable of doing to protect his comfort and his position.
Here come the spoilers:
Chris seems to have found exactly what he set out for, but his overwhelming desire for Nola wasn’t part of the plan. It’s not just her sex appeal that draws him to her; her reactions are keyed differently than everyone else’s; she listens differently, and Chris can see that she understands him in a way Chloe can’t. Chris and Nola are both grifters in a way, and both feel out of place with the Hewetts, yet they keep trying to make it work so that they can hang onto their meal tickets. But Chris is a better actor than Nola, or at least more committed to his role. He keeps surprising himself with the lengths he’s willing to go to in order to stay on the Hewetts’ good side. Nola isn’t capable of the same effort; simultaneously self-aware and self-doubting, she’s too caught up in the drama in her own head to play the role expected of her, and she’s getting nowhere in her career as a gold-digger as she is in her career as an actress. In a great drunk scene she reveals everything you need to know about the character: her troubled family life, her early marriage and quick divorce. But the key to Nola comes in a single exchange:
Nola: “Men always seem to wonder. They think I’d be … something very special.”
Chris: “And are you?”
Nola: “No one’s ever asked for their money back.”
On another weekend in the country, Chris finds Nola in a vulnerable moment after one of Eleanor’s tirades, and they have frantic sex in the middle of a field. Afterward, though, Nola rebuffs his advances, and he’s forced to try and go on with his life. He and Chloe marry and, against his wishes, begin trying to have a baby, but when Tom and Nola split up, Chris tries unsuccessfully to find her. Months after he’s given up, Chris visits the Tate Modern and by chance sees Nola. He approaches her from behind while she’s admiring a painting; the scene is an allusion to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a recreation of one of the great cinematic images of sexual obsession. From there, we know it’s hopeless.
Chris doesn’t feel guilty when the affair begins. He’s excited — it’s both a release from his boring new life and something that’s really his own, something Chloe’s family didn’t give him. But Allen gets lazy in the characterization; after their affair is in full swing, Nola becomes shrill and one-note — the film’s most interesting character becomes its least. In the second half, Nola is the same sort of clinging vine that Anjelica Huston’s Dolores was in Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors; it’s as if Allen believes there are no variations in the frustration of the mistresses of married men. Johannson’s performance is still believable — in fact her behavior reminded me strongly of a neurotic woman I know — but it doesn’t gibe with the resilience and manipulative insight she showed before. She announces that she’s pregnant and begins alternately begging and demanding that Chris come clean with Chloe so that they can begin their life together. Chris waffles, briefly considering leaving Chloe, but he soon decides that there’s only one way out of the situation.
Match Point offers many points of comparison with Crimes and Misdemeanors, but it has both greater psychological depth and a more suspenseful structure. There’s a freshness to Allen’s approach here; he’s dealing with familiar issues but doing it in a new context that seems to free him up. The film feels like Allen’s other work in the way the camera observes the actors, the way it moves away from the central event in a scene to focus on a reaction. But even moments that are typical Allen, such as a throwaway scene with Chloe and a friend gossiping at the Tate Modern, feel fresh. His pace is unhurried, yet there’s always something happening — with each scene Chris is digging himself in deeper and deeper, insinuating himself further into the Hewetts’ lives and into an affair from which there is only one escape.
Crimes was a thesis picture, Allen’s grand statement on the impossibility, or at least pointlessness, of morality in a godless world, with its symbols ladled on with a trowel. It was about Martin Landau’s long, dark night of the soul and his final conclusion that he was free to act however he wanted without fear of the consequences because, without a God to see that justice was done, there weren’t any consequences. Though the plot had some of the elements of a thriller, it didn’t play like one; it was a morality play with no real suspense. Match Point gives us some suspense, though Allen can’t quite bring himself to fully go the Hitchcock route. He keeps things at a slower pace, carefully spelling out each step that leads Chris to murder Nola. By the time violence comes, we’ve come too far with Chris; we’ve identified with him too strongly and for too long to turn back. And since the movie doesn’t play like other Allen films or like a conventional thriller, we can’t predict what will happen.
Allen’s after something both fancier and less stately than in his other dramas, and rather than his usual jazz, the score consists of arias from operas, mostly by Verdi, mostly tragic melodramas about doomed love. He uses the music both to remind us that he’s a serious artist and to heighten the melodrama, but it may also be meant as an ironic commentary, a mockery of his characters’ petty betrayals. Grand passions have never been Allen’s thing — in the past he’s satirized his characters who’ve given themselves up to overwhelming infatuations, like Michael Caine’s Elliot in Hannah and Her Sisters. But here, working for the first time with cinematographer Remi Adefarasin and with a younger, sexier cast than usual, Allen delivers the most passionate, erotic sex scenes he’s ever filmed. As a writer and actor, Allen has always been openly libidinous, but as a filmmaker he’s not a sensualist — there’s a struggle here between his attempts to capture passion and his tendency toward the austere. He’s using Hitchcock, which he must see as a sop to the audience, a step down from his usual allusions to “high art,” but there are still hints of Bergman; his compositions are formal and self-conscious; they look preserved in aspic. Is Allen spoofing his own classicizing predilections, suggesting that Chris and Nola’s illicit passion is the only spark of life in this sumptuous but cold world?
Like Chris, Allen relies on Dostoevsky both for an intellectual high tone and for plot points; the film is Dostoevsky filtered through Hitchcock, with the ideological context lost along the way. Chris takes inspiration from Crime and Punishment, committing two murders so that it appears that Nola, like Lizaveta, merely happened upon the first killing and was killed to protect the killer’s identity. And like Raskolnikov he rationalizes his crime by the insistence that it was done in favor a greater good, though the “good” he’s after is his own comfort and security and, secondarily, the protection of Chloe’s feelings. He experiences guilt and paranoia but isn’t driven to confess; the only punishment he experiences is the one imposed by his own guilty conscience. Chris is a Raskolnikov seen through the lens of Allen’s never-ending questioning of the moral nature of humanity in the absence of God. His is a crime of passion carried out dispassionately, methodically planned, but it requires great luck to escape detection. Chance is the controlling metaphor here, and everywhere we get little hints of its capriciousness. In a brief aside, we learn that the nanny Tom and his wife hired to help with their new baby has left because she got a part in a movie — she lucked into what Nola struggled and failed to find. In a godless universe, Fortune is the guiding force, and she may be a crueler mistress than even a malevolent god.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()