Match Point, another of Woody Allen’s so-called comebacks, arrives, for once, at a time when he really needed one. I have described it as ‘over-rated’ in the past, but in the context of Allen’s ‘00s comedies, it is a towering achievement. It’s a real film, after so many wispy diversions, and the first movie since Sweet and Lowdown I feel like I can praise without having to go on the defensive. After spending half a decade sleep-walking through the same tropes, Match Point is fresh and different, and, best of all, was clearly made with effort and a sense of purpose.
While its conviction is Match Point’s best attribute, its freshness and originality, by Woody Allen standards, are appreciated as well. You could probably tell from a single line of dialogue or still image that Anything Else or Melinda and Melinda were Woody Allen movies, but with Match Point, Allen’s calling cards are relegated to the film’s details and subtext. There are no writers, no stammering joke-tellers, no one-liners, and no jazz. Most dramatically of all, Allen has shifted his focus down a generation, and moved the action to London.
The story concerns a once-poor Irish tennis star named Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who, as the movie opens, decides he’s done with the pro circuit and settles into a teaching job at an exclusive country club.
He soon befriends his first student, Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), a wealthy socialite. The two hit it off and before long, Chris is engaged to Tom’s sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer), and has a cushy job working for Tom’s father, Alec (Brian Cox).
Things become complicated when Chris falls for Tom’s fiancé, Nola (Scarlett Johansson), a struggling American actress. Tom and Nola eventually break up, but Chris, who’s now married to Chloe, begins an affair with her.
The majority of the film is devoted to Chris’ attempts at balancing, and trying to choose between, his two women. He’s far more attracted to Nola, but to leave Chloe would mean devastating her, and cutting his lifeline to the fortunes provided by her family, including his cushy job with her father.
The general story is familiar from countless other Allen films, but the characters are mostly fresh. Especially unfamiliar are Goode’s foppish, smug socialite and Chloe, who is a nice, normal wife devoid of Allen’s usual stock characteristics.
The one familiar character is Nola (Johansson). Temperamental, sexually vivacious, unemployable actresses/singers have been a mainstay for Allen all the way from when Charlotte Rampling steamed up the screen in Stardust Memories, to just two years ago when Christina Ricci tormented Jason Biggs. In Celebrity, Winona Ryder even played a version of this character that had the same name. Allen is clearly fascinated by this type of woman, or maybe he just likes their cinematic potential.
Woody Allen’s departure from New York was the subject of a lot of press. Many people, including a few commenters here, noted that Allen doesn’t know how to film in London. Personally, having never been there, I didn’t really notice. One thing I will say though, is that he makes London, one of the biggest cities in the world, seem very small. Characters are constantly running into each other, and all of the exterior city shots seems to be on the same couple of blocks. This could be a limitation of the film’s budget and screenplay, or, possibly, could be borne of Allen’s unfamiliarity with the city.
And for those who claim that the people of Match Point don’t talk like real Brits, don’t worry, I can assure you they don’t talk like Americans either. They talk like characters in late-period Woody Allen movies. One of the few reminders that this is an ‘00s Allen film is the fact that his recent, dispiriting trend of writing crashingly obvious dialogue continues unabated. Almost all the people since Hollywood Ending have had the obnoxious tendency of announcing their every feeling, and when new characters show up, they inevitably feel the need to broadcast an autobiographical overview, highlighting the points likely to be key to the plot. I guess after a few decades of skillfully showing us what kinds of people his characters are, he’s decided it’s more efficient to just have them tell us outright.
The best example comes in yet another instance of what is quickly becoming Allen’s favorite scene, in which two couples go out together, and one man is clearly more interested in the other man’s girlfriend. We saw a variation on this in both Melinda and Melinda and Anything Else, and in all three instances, Allen seems to be terrified that we won’t be able to figure out what’s going on, and the men (Meyers, Ferrell, Biggs) flirt recklessly and shamelessly with the wrong woman.
One benefit wrought by the British setting is that it brings the movie’s class conflicts into sharper focus. Allen has spanned all levels of socio-economic strata in his movies, but except for the jokey, Beverly Hillbillies-type escapades of Small Time Crooks or Mighty Aphrodite, socio-economic differences between characters has never been a source of narrative significance.
Chris’ working class roots, and the fact that he reached a higher social status not through business or art but through playing tennis, is frequently brought up, and visibly tip-toed around. Tom originally takes Chris under his wing as a sort of charity, and Chloe’s initial attraction to him is as much about curiosity as it is about love. When their father says “he climbed his way up the only way he could,” he means it as a compliment, but it’s laced with condescension. He says, about Chris, “we had a very interesting conversation about Dostoevsky” as a way of trying to prove to the rest of the family that Chris is not such a cretin.
Unlike many recent protagonists, Meyers’ Chris bears no resemblance to Woody Allen in terms of mannerisms or personality, but both Chris and Woody share working-class roots and a fascination with the financial and cultural elite. Chris mentions to Chloe at one point that he’s always wanted to be a man like her father, “wealthy but not stuffy; enjoying his fortune, having a grand time, supporting the arts.” And then there’s Woody Allen, the son of a bookkeeper from Flatbush, Brooklyn, who would go on to make movies like Alice and Hannah and her Sisters. When Chris says he feels like he’s reached the upper-class fraudulently by being a lowly tennis player, it made me wonder if Woody Allen once felt the same way, having infiltrated Manhattan’s white-collar elite by telling jokes in nightclubs and making silly movies.
Class ends up playing a large role in Chris’ romantic dilemma. Losing Chloe means losing his new-found wealth and status forever, and if they found out about his affair with an American actress (who he’s since impregnated), it would confirm all of their worst, class-based stereotypes. The prospect, therefore, of leaving Chloe is impossible for Chris to consider.
But, at the same time, Nola makes the prospect of being left equally impossible in a different way. She can’t offer him anything (anything non-physical, at least), but she has nothing to lose, which makes her dangerous. In a scene that Chris should probably have foreseen, Nola threatens to tell Chloe about their affair, hoping to force him to break up with her.
Chris responds to Nola the same way Judah (Martin Landau) responded to Delores (Anjelica Huston) in Crimes and Misdemeanors: by shutting her up permanently (killing her, to be more specific). What was once unthinkable has now become the standard course of action for philandering men in Woody Allen movies. Consider this, alongside the suicide attempts by Charlotte Rampling in Stardust Memories and Radha Mitchell in Melinda and Melinda, and it’s clear that sexy, emotionally volatile women have short life expectancies when appearing in Woody Allen movies.
This development is only one of many things that connects Match Point with Crimes and Misdemeanors. Both have the unexpected twist of the protagonist getting away with their crime, but more importantly, both explicitly quote — and then refute — Crime and Punishment’s central tenet that you have to be punished for your crimes in order to be able to live with them, and both point to guilt as a balancing force and the only consequence of immorality. The film’s two protagonists even describe their coping mechanisms with nearly identical wording (Judah (Martin Landau): “We rationalize. We deny. Otherwise we couldn’t go on living.” Chris (Meyers): “You learn to put the guilt under the rug and go on. You have to, otherwise it overwhelms you.”).
Match Point is darker and makes its points more assuredly and directly, but it lacks Crimes’ depth. In its ambiguity, Crimes felt like it was probing all the darkest, angriest corners of Allen’s psyche and dumping out whatever tangled, ugly messes were in there. Match Point, on the other hand, is a cold, distant exercise made with detached skill.
Crime and Punishment, a novel with which Allen is clearly, continuously obsessed, shares Crimes and Misdemeanor’s meandering anguish, but Match Point borrows more of its plot. Like Crime and Punishment, Match Point’s protagonist commits the murder himself (he does not sub-contract, like Judah Rosenthal), and he takes the life of a peripheral woman as well. In this case, Chris Wilton kills not only Nola, but her landlady and neighbor as well, in order to make his acts look more like a random robbery. Chris justifies her death by saying “sometimes the innocent have to be sacrificed in service of a greater plan,” a line quoted almost directly from Dostoevsky’s novel. Chris and Raskolnikov are also both linked to their murders by jewelry stolen from the scene of the crime — jewelry stolen in haste, with no real intention to sell or use.
One of the movie’s key moments comes early on when we see Chris reading a copy of Crime and Punishment only to put it down and pick up a copy of The Cambridge Companion to Dostoevsky. That scene is almost a perfect metaphor for the film — that reader’s guide is doing for Chris the same thing that Match Point is doing for us. It’s taking grand literary themes and spelling them out in an accessible way, sparing us the ambiguity or density of great art.
Take, for example, the film’s not-so-subtle exploration of fate. In the opening scene, we see a tennis ball bounce off the top of a net and go straight up, while Chris, in voice-over, explains the importance of luck, using tennis as a metaphor — the ball could fall down on either side, and how ‘good’ you are has nothing to with it.
Near the end of the movie, Chris throws the old woman’s jewelry — the only evidence linking him to the crime — over a guard rail and into a river. The last ring he throws hits the railing, and bounces straight up in slow motion, in a shot identical to the opening one described above. In the end, it doesn’t go into the river, but bounces back onto the sidewalk and is picked up by a drifter. The police, who had been looking at Chris as the prime suspect, find the drifter dead with the ring in his pocket and accept him as the killer, which spares Chris of any further investigation.
As a dramatic device, it’s brilliant, and would have made Alfred Hitchcock proud — our ‘hero’ proves his point about how it’s better to be lucky than good in the most profound way possible, and without even realizing it. It’s a point made with pounding obviousness, however, as if Woody Allen is sitting behind you in the theatre, poking you on the shoulder and whispering, “get it?” No one’s likely to miss it this way, but if Chris’ fate had been sealed by luck’s more insidious, subtle machinations, it might have been more meaningful.
Allen’s calculated skill ultimately makes the film feel cold and emotionally distant. The characters are less human beings than marionettes demonstrating dramatic principles. I was reminded of Alfred Hitchcock comparing directing actors to herding cattle. This never used to be the case for Allen. Perhaps more-so than anyone, Allen used to make movies that existed as showcases for his vibrant, distinct, incredibly knowable characters, but Chris Wilton, Chloe Hewett and Nola Rice are rarely more than narrative devices.
All that said, Allen’s new clinical approach isn’t always a fault. At times, it gives it a visceral, calculated sheen. As a writer, Allen’s playing a different game than we’re used to, but as a director, he’s slick and confident in a way he’s never been before.
The suspense sequences — particularly the ones in which Chris commits his crimes — are white-knuckle intense. They’re thrilling, and more importantly, thrillingly unlike anything Allen has ever done. In Crimes and Misdemeanors he spared us the actual violence, but this time he harrowingly lingers on it. It demonstrates a level of craftsmanship I didn’t realized Woody Allen possessed, or would even have been interested in.
Allen brilliantly dwells on the little, quiet details of something grand and horrible — Chris desperately assembling his shotgun, for example, or stuffing spent shotgun shells into a high-end, leather tennis bag — and underscores it with eerie, scratchy opera recordings.
Both before and after Chris’ murder spree, Allen twists the knife with sudden, jarring allusions to the movie’s brutal crime. In one particularly chilling moment, Chris is retrieving Chloe’s sweater from his tennis bag, and a shotgun shell trickles out, which he quickly pockets, although not quickly enough to stop her from suspiciously asking what that was.
Allen’s intensity and willingness to show what he’d previously left to the imagination applies to more than just the violence. Match Point is easily Allen’s sexiest movie, although admittedly, it doesn’t really have much competition in this regard — Allen’s always been more interested in the less titillating aspects of relationships. The movie benefits from the presence of perpetual World’s Sexiest Woman contender Scarlett Johansson as well as Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who pouts like a male model throughout. Their sex scenes are surprisingly graphic by Woody Allen standards, and devoid of his usual awkward moments and angsty hang-ups, although they’re also as choreographed and clichéd as anything you’ll find on Cinemax late at night.
Allen also makes an uncharacteristic decision to attempt genuinely sexy flirtation for the first time (unless you count the cringe-inducing banter between Helen Hunt and Allen in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion). Some of it still rings false and sounds suspiciously like it’s coming from a 70-year-old man — the ping-pong scene is filled with forced, awkward double entendres — but the fact that the dialogue emanates from the mouths of young, attractive people goes a long way towards selling it.
Match Point, all said, is a whole lot of different things. It’s a thriller, it’s a social commentary, it’s a soap opera, it’s another one of Allen’s treatises on how God is dead and everyone is terrible. Even if it felt emotionally distant, I think it’s everything Woody Allen intended it to be, and it’s easy to see why he considers it his best movie. Woody Allen is a man who loves to make sports analogies, in this movie and in real life, so in his honor, here’s my attempt at one: if movies like Annie Hall and Manhattan are home-runs, Match Point is like a triple — not quite as valuable, but rarer, harder to pull off, and just as exciting to watch.
- The first Woody Allen movie to run longer than two hours (it’s 2:04).
- Its gross of $23 million makes Match Point Allen’s highest-grossing movie since Hannah and her Sisters in the United States. Its international gross of $85 million (against a $15 million budget, mind you) is, as far as I can tell, his best ever.
- Woody Allen received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay, an honor for which he used to have a standing invitation. It was his first in eight years (his previous one was for Deconstructing Harry), which, somewhat amazingly, is the longest he’s ever gone in between nominations.
- The entire soundtrack comes courtesy of pre-WWII 78rpm records, which gives them their faded, scratchy sound.
- Almost all of the opera heard in the film is Enrico Caruso performing Giuseppe Verdi’s Othello.
- Match Point was written before Allen realized he would be filming it in London (it was originally set in New York and The Hamptons). Once the setting changed, Allen made a few small changes — including renaming the lead character from ‘Jerry’ to ‘Chris’ because he was told that there are no British people named Jerry.
- The move to London was partially financial. American studios had begun requiring Allen to accept artistic input, whereas Allen was able to score a deal with British investors that would allow him to maintain creative control — their one condition was that Allen film in London and use a mainly British cast and crew.
- Kate Winslet was originally cast as Nola Rice, but dropped out to spend more time with her family. Given the contractual stipulation that he had to have a certain percentage of British cast and crew, he started looking for a British actress to replace her. However, his sister/producer Letty Aronson informed him that the supporting cast already fulfilled the requirements, so they were able to hire Scarlett Johansson, who is American.
- The movie was produced in part by BBC Films.
- Match Point was distributed in America by DreamWorks, who had distributed (and produced) Allen’s first three films of the decade.
- Juliet Taylor, the casting director for all of Allen’s films, was joined on Match Point by Gail Stevens, veteran of British television and Danny Boyle films.
- Banksy has a brief cameo: