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Good Point

June 6, 2006

I find Woody Allen's credit sequences fascinating. With their elongated white serif font, black background and scratchy ragtime soundtrack, they're like title cards for a silent movie. It's an appropriate effect for Allen's latest movie, Match Point, which in its location–Britain–and content–marriage and murder among the upper-crust–is reminiscent of movies by another master, one who first made his name doing silents in England: Alfred Hitchcock.

Unlike typical Hitchcock, however, the murder in Match Point doesn't come until the last reel. Unlike typical Allen, the protagonist is neither Woody nor a surrogate neurotic. As Chris Wilton, a former middling pro tennis player, Jonathan Rhys Meyers is the anti-Allen: confident, conniving, decisive and athletic. He's come to an exclusive tennis club in London to serve as a tennis pro, but his real game is social mountaineering.

He quickly befriends Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), a jovial young blueblood who invites him to the opera, and romances his sparkling younger sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer), who asks him to a weekend at the family's country estate. So far, advantage Wilton. But his gameplan hits a snag when he meets Tom's fiancé, Nola Rice (Scarlet Johansson), a sexy but moody American actress who's aware of her effect on men. He flirts forcefully, wrapping his arms around her to demonstrate the proper ping pong swing. Nola is intrigued. "You play an aggressive game," she tells him.

Back in London, they meet for drinks in a delicious scene that smells of conspiracy, where Nola reveals she's playing a similar game. She came from a poor, dysfunctional upbringing in Colorado and she's not about to let a pass–or genuine passion–ruin her opportunity to enter the aristocracy. "You're doing so well so far," she tells him. "Don't mess things up."

But eventually things do get messed up, as the two sneak out for rain-soaked sex in a hayfield at the Hewett estate. In its sensuality and seriousness, the scene would be at home on the cover of a romance novel. But it's downright shocking in an Allen film. The effect, I think, is intentional. Allen is sending a message to his audience: an old director can learn new tricks.

Despite Chris' attempts to extend the affair, the pair return to their respective lives of respectability. As Chris' public life develops in predictably ascendant fashion, his private life unravels. He marries Chloe, despite never loving her. He takes a high-paying job at his father-in-law's company, and hates it.

Meanwhile, Nola gets dumped for a more socially suitable mate, and the two don't meet again until an accidental encounter at an art gallery a year or so later. This time his persistence pays off–they embark on a passionate affair. At home it's a different story. Chloe becomes ever more desperate in her attempts to get pregnant, and sex between the pair devolves into little more than proctreative duty. Nola devilishly dubs it "The Pregnancy Project."

There's a lot to like in all this. Philosophically, Match Point explores the dialectic between faith and human willpower. Tom says "the path of least resistance" is despair, while Chris says it's faith. Their opposing perspectives are reasonable, given their differing class statuses; Tom has succeeded through the strength of his family connections and therefore assumes his good fortune must be divinely inspired, while Chris came from nothing and has always had to make his own luck. The philosophical waters are muddied further when the question is raised whether luck can be manufactured, as there are numerous references–spoken and visual–to the randomness of a tennis ball's bounce off the top of the net.

To complicate the issue even more, Chris consistently references this aspect of the game when he explains why he quit the pro circuit; it's possible that Chris simply prefers pursuits–like interpersonal manipulation–with less arbitrary results than tennis. A key shot later in the film suggests that Allen's view is that men mostly make their own destinies, and then must live with the moral and psychological consequences. But sometimes the arbitrariness of the universe–call it Chaos, call it God, call it whatever–leads to bad people finding good fortune, and there's nothing any of us can do about it. Cynical? Yes. Depressing? A little. Profound? Hell yeah.

While Allen untangles these philosophical complexities, he ensures his characters remain grounded in believable psychology. Each supporting character is a sympathetic portrait of human weakness. Chloe is optimistic and innocent, full of sunshine and cheer, but desperate for her life to meet her preordained expectations (and not beneath resorting to useless superstitions, like a Tibetan pregnancy block, to favor her fate). Tom is similarly good-hearted, but malleable enough that he dumps Nola to make his mother happy. Nola is a flirt who wears gloriously tight shirts and is willing to have sex in public places, but for this struggling actress with little money, no safety net and a hunger for love, it's the soundest survival strategy she knows.

The only enigma is Chris. He's so blandly direct in his early scenes that we have little sense of what drives him to such ruthless manipulation; unlike a very similar character, Tom Ripley from The Talented Mr. Ripley, we never see the lonely boy behind the vicious man. This is partially Allen the screenwriter's fault–there is no scene similar to the one in Ripley's dilapidated New York apartment at the beginning of The Talented Mr. Ripley–but more due to Meyers' limitations as an actor. A more powerful actor, a Jude Law perhaps, would have filled in the blanks in the character.

Only when we see the the stress and anxiety behind the remorseless mask does Chris become sympathetic. When Nola gets pregnant, refuses to have an abortion and threatens to tell Chloe if he doesn't, he's faced with a no-win predicament: if he tells Chloe, he can have love and a child but no job and no home; if he dumps Nola, Chloe will still find out, and then he has no love, no child, no job and no future. With the second choice shittier than the first, Chris attempts to create his own luck via a third choice–remove Nola from the picture altogether, so that at least he can keep his nice job and fabulous flat. At this point the film enters Hitchockian territory, as we witness Chris' sloppy attempts at preparing a plot to kill Nola.

These scenes play out quite credibly, as Chris fumbles with bullets and hides his killing paraphenalia in inconvenient places. When he kills his first victim–Nola's neighbor, in an attempt to mislead the police into thinking it was a drug-crazed burglar–there's a wonderful scene where Meyers breaks down, and we see that he's realized he's crossed into new moral country. Whether he's caught or not, he will have to live with the guilt for the rest of his life. By the time Nola appears outside the apartment, her killing is almost an afterthought. He's already gone beyond the point of no return.

Like many Hitchcock movies, we get the obligatory scenes of cops using reason to unravel the crime; in true Hitchockian fashion, their conclusions are either wrong, misguided or hopelessly simplistic. In Match Point, they get awfully close to the truth, but a stroke of luck–the unintended bounce of a wedding ring off the ridge of a fence–sends them off-course.

If this all sounds like Match Point is beautifully crafted and written, it is. If it sounds like Match Point packs a powerful punch, well, not quite. Like a gentlemen's tennis match, its virtues are so subtle as to be almost undetectable. Like most Allen films, there is little in the way of action, the filmmaking lacks visual flair and even the most dangerous conversations are civilized. Even the murder scenes are bloodless. Despite the film's mastery of its theme, the experience of watching Match Point felt closer to watching a mediocre love triangle movie like Closer than it did to watching a masterpiece. It was only long after I clicked off the silent film credits that I was able to understand the sophistication of Allen's moral vision. Unlike the best Allen movies– Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters and The Purple Rose of Cairo come to mind–Match Point's pleasures lie more in the contemplation than the consumption.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. bro permalink
    June 6, 2006 7:31 pm

    the only part of this i agree with is the last paragraph. maybe the fact that some foreigners were talking loudly in the theatre during three quarters of the movie contributed to it, but i just couldn’t give two shits about any of the characters. this might be heresy coming from a movie connisseur, but i think the main problem with match point was that its too hitchcockian. Just like almost every hitchcock film I’ve seen, none of the characters strike me as a real person, there’s simply a cast of puppets that alfred manipulates. There’s a protaganist, who’s either upstanding or morally murky, a blond costar whose only function is to be a love interest, and possibly a villain (depending on the moral murkiness of the protaganist). There’s no real acting, it’s mostly just the main star acting as himself and the costar looking pretty. so with no emotional resonance, you’re left simply with plot and hitchcock’s set pieces. when the plot and set pieces are fun- see north by northwest- then you’re in for a good time. if they’re not-see vertigo, and then never see it again because you’ll never get those 2 hours back- then you are screwed. calling match point woody’s vertigo is giving it far too much credit (or blame depending on your perspective) so let’s say it’s woody’s notorious.

  2. June 7, 2006 3:01 am

    While I couldn’t disagree more with your opinions on Hitchcock, your description of the general framework of most of his movies is spot on. But if you criticize Hitchcock for drawing from the same well over and over, then you have to criticize many of the other greatest directors of all time: Scorsese, Allen, Ford and Tarantino, to name a few.

    As for this issue of whether the characters strike you as a real person, well of course they don’t. They’re stylized versions of real people, in the same way that almost every American movie prior to the late ’60s is populated only by stylized versions of real people. Does anybody in Citizen Kane, Casablanca or The Searchers seem “real”? No, but verisimilitude is only an illusion anyway; gritty realism to our generation will seem like outlandish fantasy to the next.

    Since I know suggesting you see Vertigo again won’t get anywhere, I’ll offer the following Hitchcock movies for your consumption. I defy you not to enjoy the following films:
    -Strangers on a Train
    -To Catch a Thief
    -Rear Window

    Unlike Vertigo, which requires at least two viewings to reveal its power, these three movies are all accessible, entertaining and often funny. Plus two out of three have Grace Kelly, and she’s just a tall glass of sex-milk.

  3. bro permalink
    June 7, 2006 6:33 pm

    Dont you dare compare Citizen Kane to any of Hitchcock’s stuff. As far as I’m concerned, Hitch was a craftsman while Welles was a true artist. While still stylized to a point, I find the acting in Kane far more agreeable than any of Hitch’s work. Perhaps the difference is that the ensemble in Kane was almost entirely from the stage, while Hitch’s actors were almost all Classically Hollwood trained. Also, the psychological realism and depth of the Kane character far exceeds any of Hitch’s.
    And I have seen Rear Window, I would certainly put it closer on the sprectrum to North by Northwest than Vertigo, but it still leaves me mostly cold.
    And I highly disagree with your cynical statements regarding “realism”. The simple fact is that classic Hollywood was not permitted to deal with the themes, language and sex that was present in the real world. Now, there are almost no restrictions for serious cinema.
    And finally, I wasn’t criticizing Hitch so much for drawing from the same well as I was criticitzing him for drawing from the same shallow well so often. I dont have a problem with a certain formula or style, but when I dont like it the first time, I’m almost certain not to like it the next dozen or so times. I’m sure I could say the same thing about Ford, if I ever committed to actually watching any of his work

  4. Matt permalink
    July 28, 2006 3:01 pm

    First off, Micah I love the blog. After moving to San Diego I have had little time to do much surfing on the internet, until now. I have read a few entries, and found them well written and insightful. Hopefully my edition to the comment section can be a somewhat positive addition to the overall quality of the blog.
    I would just like to say that I saw “Match Point” a few months ago and can only vaguely refer to specific scenes. All I can remember when I walked out of the theatre was that I felt the exact opposite of what you found the movie to be. Match Point to me was trite, pretentious, redundant, and for the most part watered down. I felt as though much of the movie was spoonfed to the audience; and I wasnt sure whether Scarlett Johanssen was acting so badly on purpose or not. Either way, hasn’t Woody covered the subject of cosmic arbitrariness in the “Mighty Aphrodite?” A film that was far more subtle, and more effective in my opinion because it used humor as the vehicle ( and not suspense, which I am convinced now that he can’t use in any sense that may be considered “artisitc”).
    Finally, I will say that my lasting memory of the movie was the opening shot of a tennis ball careening off of the top of a tennis net, exactly half of the ball on both sides of the court. To paraphrase the narration ” A ball hits a net…(dramatic pause)…which way it lands can sometimes decide the course of the match.” I wish I could do the scene justice. More was said, but it really doesn’t matter because the recurring image of a ball bouncing off of the top of the net is so obvious to the overall point of the movie that it leaves little to the audience to interpret.
    Keep up the blog.


  5. Sue Garson permalink
    October 25, 2006 11:03 pm

    Matchpoint was lauded as an original screenplay. Au contraire, it’s the same storyline as An American Tragedy with Montgomery Clift, Shelley Winters who got pregnant and thus had to be drowned to allow for Clift’s marriage to Daddy’s Girl, Elizabeth Taylor. How come none of the critics noticed the obvious similarity?

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