Review of Woody
Allen’s Match Point
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/2/06
The critical buzz about Woody Allen’s latest film, Match Point, is that it’s his best since (fill in the blank), and, to a degree, that’s true. The last of his films to attain even a limited greatness was 1999’s Sweet And Lowdown, with the magnificent performances of Sean Penn and Samantha Morton, and the last flat out great Allen film was 1992’s Husbands And Wives. But a case can be made that this film is his best since 1989’s Crimes And Misdemeanors, the film which is its most obvious philosophic and narrative ancestor. That said, in a sense, this film is also sort of a ‘Best Of’ Woody Allen film, which reuses many of the best scenes and motifs of his best work.
There is the obvious nod to Crimes And Misdemeanors, in that this film follows a murderer who gets away with his crime of killing his mistress when she gets too clingy and demanding. But, there are nods to Interiors, with the end shot of the film, as the protagonist gazes out a window into a vacant sky, Annie Hall with the scenes of tennis, and several others. Also, as always, there is Allen’s ‘grand idea’ that propels the film; in this case another one he has used before, that of luck being the single greatest determinant in someone’s success or failure writ small or large, not ethics.
The tale is rather straightforward, but slow developing by Hollywood standards. This is a good thing, though! It is sort of like the serious half of Crimes And Misdemeanors set alone. This is a good choice, in that it shows Allen not totally aping his prior work, but also a poor one, in that without the humorous tale that complements the dark tale in the earlier film, the darkness of this tale never seems as deep and fermented, nor the character as disturbing when he breaks away from mundanity to evil. Jonathan Rhys Meyers, this film’s lead, is never as frighteningly evil as Martin Landau’s dentist in the earlier film, although he is world’s better than your typical psychopath from a thriller or slasher flick. Imagine playing in the bright sun, then rushing into a really dark room, and in the minutes before your eyes adjust you have to deal with the overwhelm of lightlessness and its disorienting effects. That’s what made Crimes And Misdemeanors’ antiphonal structure so successful. Match Point is merely a straight drama, with few chuckles, and Allen’s first full drama since 1988’s magisterial dialectic on infidelity: Another Woman- and only his fourth overall, in almost forty films.
Chris Wilton (Meyers) is a mediocre tennis pro who is ready to social climb through the classes of British society. An Irish immigrant, he had talent, but never the drive nor luck to become one of the top tennis players on the pro circuit. He gets a job as a tennis pro at a country club, and quickly becomes pals with one of his students, Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), a playboy whose father (Brian Cox) is a wealthy industrialist. He meets and romances Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer), a decent, loving, but desperate, woman who desires nothing more than a family. The digs at Allen’s ex-flame Mia Farrow, via Chloe, are not subtle to anyone with recall over a decade old. Turns out that just as things seem to fall into place for Chris, he meets Tom’s fiancée, a sexy blond American wannabe actress named Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), who is a typical Allen artsy babe- neurotic, chain smoking, and libidinous. After several flirtations, one afternoon, out at the Goode estate, in a rainstorm, Chris and Nola have sex, after she has been belittled by Tom’s mother. This rain sex scene is one of the few missteps in the film. After their one night stand Nola breaks it off.
Then Tom dumps Nola, merely because she bores him and he’s found someone new, and she goes back to America. Chris is distraught, but life goes on, until she returns to London, they meet, and begin a full blown affair. Chris, however, has moved up steadily in the Hewett company, and is living the good life. Chloe is devoted yet obsessed with having a baby. As in Crimes And Misdemeanors, Chris will not let a deranged woman bring down all he’s worked for, so he decides to kill her. Unlike the earlier film, a hitman is not hired, for Chris decides to kill his lover, who now claims to be pregnant, by himself. He steals a Goode family skeet shotgun from the estate, then murders Nola’s elderly neighbor, fakes a robbery for the old woman’s drug cabinet, then waits for Nola to come home, thinking he’s finally dumped Chloe, and kills her. He returns the gun, and tosses the evidence into the Thames, after getting a call from the police, because Chloe had kept a diary of their affair. There is a nod to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment here, because, between the two murders, a neighbor of the old woman knocks on her door for her, not realizing the killer is inside, just as in the book Raskolnikov is nearly caught at the scene of the crime.
However, Allen makes a great writing choice here. In tossing away the old lady’s jewels into the river, the audience sees all of her jewelry make it to the water, except a ring, which hits a metal railing and bounces back on to the sidewalk. There were audible gasps in the packed movie house I was in, as the audience all felt this was where Chris’s luck had finally run out, because when the film opened, there were shots of a tennis ball being hit back and forth over a net, and then one ball hits the net and hangs suspended as Meyers intones about luck, and if the ball goes over the net you win, and if it falls back, you lose. When the ring falls back from the Thames, most viewers felt Chris was going to get nailed. I didn’t, because earlier in the film there’s a scene of Chris reading Crime And Punishment, and then a companion book that explains the novel. This was a brilliant narrative move because it portended that a) Chris was a poseur, an actor, all his life, as mere social climber, or would be killer, and b) that he would get away with his crime, as Raskolnikov did (knowing Allen would never give in to such a thing as guilt). Still, the cops seem to be ready to make their case, as they know Chris had opportunity and motive. But, it turns out there is a second drug murder, a day later, and the old woman’s ring- with her inscription- is found in the possession of the murdered junky, making it seem he killed the old lady for her drugs, and then killed Nola who was ‘at the wrong place at the wrong time’, only to be killed himself. Some critics have complained that the ending is too loose, and the cops too boobish, but the fact is that the drug account of the double murder is far more plausible to those who have not witnessed the ‘real’ events that the audience has, and cops worldwide are creatures of ease and habit, and simply do not want to investigate ‘small time’ crimes regarding drugs and the like, especially when that option fits the facts better, in a slam against Occam’s Razor. This is true globally, as most murders go unsolved, and even uninvestigated, especially if you’re poor, from the wrong side of town- as Nola was, and unconnected. This fact also slyly digs at the English class system’s desire to sweep things under the rug that might embarrass the rich and famous. For every scandal that makes the tabloids there are a hundred that don’t.
Allen is also especially smart in really developing the characters for nearly 90% of the film, before we truly see how depraved Chris is, as well are the Hewetts. Chloe, a good daddy’s girl, wants Chris from the get go, so has her daddy, in essence, buy her the man of her dreams- giving him a job with his company, a hugely decadent apartment overlooking the Thames, and the knowledge that he’ll bail the two of them out if they ever have financial problems. Chloe’s mom is a snob and bigot, and her brother an amoral womanizing cad. Johansson’s Nola is a schemer, slut, and likely faking her pregnancy just to get Chris, knowing that this would make her seem more ‘worthy’ than the seemingly infertile Chloe, as well as get back at the family that treated her so shabbily. There are no likeable characters in the leads, which makes Chloe’s murder all the less disturbing- which allows Allen the ability to have his audience question their own ethics, for he presents us with two murder victims- one the amoral scheming home-wrecking Nola, and the other a kind, trusting old woman. In another of the film’s minor missteps, Allen has the dead Nola and neighbor rack Chris’s mind, and he fends them off quoting Sophocles. But, it’s not convincing, and never approaches the emotional nor intellectual depth the similar scenes of Martin Landau internally dialoguing with his rabbi and family do. It’s just too forced and deep for an intellectual lightweight and poseur like Chris. Yet, when Tom ends the film commenting on his nephew, Chris’s and Chloe’s new baby boy, he states, ‘I don’t care if he's great, I just hope he’s lucky’, he has no idea how apt that phrase is to the boy’s father, and his whole clan. No filmmaker going handles ethics, infidelity, murder, better nor more intelligently than Allen does. He is especially sly in a scene where he telegraphs Chris’s coming prosperity in the face of wethical immolation when he has his characters got o see the film The Motorcycle Diaries, which dishonestly hagiographizes Che Guevara- a real life mass murderer who got away with his crimes, as well.
While the lack of humorous counterbalance, and manifest self-stealing, drains on this film in relation to Crimes And Misdemeanors, it does have some benefits its predecessor lacked. The change of venue to England makes this film a much more class conscious film than the earlier film, and it also allows Allen a fresh conversational palette. His preening airs are well suited for the gray upper crust Britons, and there is no Jewish New York humor, nor mannered speech, nor a puerile character going on and on about Schopenhauer nor Hegel, as there have been in recent films like Anything Else (remember Christina Ricci’s dreadful performance as an intellectual wannabe?) or Melinda And Melinda. This is especially true and effective in a scene where Nola is drunk, after failing a commercial audition, and flirts with Chris. In other Allen films she’d say something pseudo-intellectual and combacky when Chris puts her emotionally on the spot. In this film she just looks at him, and says nothing, being truly affected, and revealing an emotional depth, reality, and vulnerability other Allen characters in his lesser recent films have lacked. There is no Woody stand-in character- the neurotic nebbish is nowhere to be found. Meyers is believably creepy from the get-go, especially his first pass as Johansson, and all the other actors do well with their parts. Some have criticized Meyers for not sounding convincingly Irish, but this is a silly charge since a) it reveals their own biases that all bogtrotters wheeze Begoshes and Begorrahs, and b) that a social climber like Chris would not purposely tone down his most manifest signal of his ‘low roots’.
Whether or not this terrific film signals a quality fluke, for Allen’s stealing shamelessly from earlier great outings may belie a creative bankruptcy (although one could argue the reassemblage or collage is creative in its own right), or a renascent final Silver Age to bookend his Golden Age (1977’s Annie Hall through 1992’s Husbands And Wives), only the next few films will herald, but I’d love to see Allen stay away from New York for the next four or five films, and really push himself hard narratively, in a final creative burst. The editing of the film is very crisp, and at only about two hours, the film feels far longer and richer, in the best sense. The English countryside is also beautifully filmed by Allen newcomer Remi Adefarasin.
As said, without Crimes And Misdemeanors’ comedy, this film does not approach the universality of experience that film does (recall the philosopher in that film’s documentary within a film, and his narration over the final wedding scenes), but it is still leagues above the usual crap Hollywood puts forth, and is, along with Terrence Malick’s The New World, a great film from last year, albeit merely great, not immortally great like its filmic predecessor. That’s the sort of damnation anyone would welcome.
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