Monday, February 13, 2006
I'd rather be lucky than good.
Everything that does and doesn't work in Match Point can be traced back to the opening shot of a tennis ball floating back and forth over a net. It's a great, stylish moment that reminds us that Woody Allen, best known for his dialogue, can also be a nimble visual storyteller - think of the opening of Manhattan, or the entirety of the underrated Shadows and Fog. Yet the image also represents luck, as Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) informs us in voiceover. We could have guessed as much ourselves, but Allen gets his point - that life is all about luck - across in the first few moments, and proceeds to hammer it home for the next two hours. It's like a five-point essay; he tells us what he's going to tell us, tells us, and then tells us that he's told us.
Chris is a tennis pro ready to throw in the towel, and we meet him at an exclusive country club, where he teaches wealthy clients. We soon enter Patricia Highsmith country, as Chris befriends Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode) and becomes close with Tom's wealthy family, eventually marrying Tom's sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) and going to work for their father, Alec (Brian Cox). This is complicated, naturally, by Chris' attraction to Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), Tom's fiancee. The two engage in a series of trysts (eew - baby oil!), deception and intrigue occur, and thematically appropriate operas are attended. All of this is familiar territory, of course. The question is, does Allen - who has tackled infidelity on numerous occasions, though usually for laughs - make this variation on a familiar theme worthwhile? Yes and no.
Allen lets his plot unfold gradually, so that when a central character makes a potentially unbelievable leap in the second hour, we can believe it (although said leap is overly telegraphed with an earlier nod to Crime and Punishment - whether Allen meant to reward or spoil the fun for a sizable chunk of the audience, I cannot say). As with Highsmith, Match Point creates tension in the experience of a newcomer's introduction to status and priveledge, which the newcomer must them go to drastic lengths to protect. The performers - including Penelope Wilton, biting and daffy as matriarch Eleanor - hit the right notes all around. But this is particularly true with Scarlett Johansson; her Nola would be easy to mistake for a conventional femme fatale if not for the details - the way she holds a cigarette, her gaze's betrayal of her words - that make her a sad, haunting character. Johansson's performance reveals Nola's bitter recognition that she and Chris are both visitors in a world they are not fit to inhabit. Consider, in the end, whether Chris has gained anything, on even a shallow level, that he is not doomed to lose.
However, as I've said, these issues are apparently secondary to Allen, who presses on with his monotonous theory of luck. Here is where the film goes awry, as very little of the story has anything to do with luck. Chris is not a passive recipient of good or bad fortune; almost from the beginning, he is the prime mover of the plot's machinations, and instigates every major plot development. Is it really luck if you do it on purpose? I know that sounds obvious, yet Allen presses on with a more simplistic version of a worldview he has depicted before, most successfully with Crimes and Misdemeanors. In that film, the Martin Landau character argues that we are all alone in the universe, and this leaves us capable of anything; the Rhys-Meyers character here represents the same notion, but in a less compelling manner. It's a frigid, misanthropic concept, played incoherently here, resulting in a film that works nicely as a potboiler (I loved Rhys-Meyers' fumbling scene in the police station) but poorly as an argument. There is a slight hint in the final scene that Allen understands the central contradiction, but it isn't defined enough to be clear whether that is indeed the case or if I'm just hoping it is.
I realize that this piece reads rather negatively for a film I did enjoy, particularly for Johansson's performance (and gams). Partly this is a baffled response to the critical consensus of Match Point as a bold departure for Allen; it all seemed rather familiar to me. Yes, it's set in England and there's no Woody-esque character, but aren't these changes rather superficial? Of his recent films, I greatly prefer Anything Else, which was panned for being too familiar; this is my way of expressing my confusion out of being out of step with collective opinion. To echo that opening shot, I feel like I've landed on one side of the fence while everyone else has landed on the other.