Now that he’s 70 years old, Woody Allen doesn’t want to act in his films anymore, he has said, which has in turn relieved him of his obligation to write comedies. Believing that his public would be disappointed if Woody weren’t available to them, he has stuck with the relationship longer than he should have. Finally, he is free to make films without the pressure of having to provide laughs.
With his latest, Match Point, Allen shows his ability to plumb the depths of the darker side of humanity; indeed, the flipside of his humor has always been that it taps into the horrors of our own hideous moments of self-loathing. A devout skeptic and mostly depressed old man, Allen has no desire to see the brighter side of having been born in the first place. To him, the good things in life come because you get lucky, not because you do anything in particular to make them happen.
This idea has threaded through his work from the beginning. Love, death, success, being born pretty – it all comes down to a luck of the draw. The opening shot of Match Point explains the process when a tennis ball hits the net, floats upward and could go either way. If it goes the other way, you lose. If it goes your way, you win. The film sets out to show us how this also applies to life.
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers plays Chris, a tennis pro/social climber who is invited out to a very wealthy country estate where he meets two women. One is Chloe (the good girl), played with sweet desperation by Emily Mortimer, the other is Nola Rice (the bad girl), played by Scarlett Johansson as a bursting, ripe peach you can’t resist biting into. He will enjoy a courtship with Chloe, whose wealthy family will place him in a great job, give him an apartment looking out over the Thames and what amounts to the perfect life. But he will be driven mad with desire by Nola, who represents human weakness on every front: she drinks, she is reckless, a boundary crosser, and a walking fatality.
As he rises through the social ranks, he threatens his position by risking an affair with Nola – how could he not? But when the romance turns painfully real, Chris can’t bear the thought of life with Nola and must get rid of her. He indulges aspects of his personality he never could have imagined in any other instance. Allen puts him to extraordinary tests to see what he’ll do and how we’ll react to what he does.
Match Point, Woody’s best film in at least ten years, deals with many of the same themes shown in A Place in the Sun, in which Montgomery Clift wanted Elizabeth Taylor so badly he had to bump off the pregnant Shelly Winters to get her. In this case, however, Chris cannot resist the tug of desire any more than he can resist marrying Chloe for the money; he wants what he wants and consequences be damned.
Allen explored this territory in Crimes and Misdemeanors, only it was interwoven with great comedy (Alan Alda: “If it bends, it’s comedy. If it breaks…”) and was, of course, yet one more New York story. Match Point takes place in London, far away from New York, and there is no real comedy to speak of. This is much more Joseph Losey/Alfred Hitchcock territory in which the guilt or innocence of a person is more ambiguous.
Those deeply familiar with the writer/director’s work will notice some familiar character arcs and dialogue. For instance, when Nola Rice stops being a desirable minx and becomes, instead, a pregnant, needy nuisance, her breakdown scene is almost word for word what Angelica Huston’s was in Crimes and Misdemeanors, with both women demanding to speak to the wife.
Allen himself does not moralize. In fact, he does the opposite – proving Hitchcock’s theory that the audience will naturally root for the character even if he is committing a crime. Match Point shows a world that can be played like a tennis match – each player doing their best until one wins or loses. And it all comes down to luck.
Scarlett Johansson is no doubt one of the great screen beauties. And for the most part, she is perfectly cast as Nola – but she doesn’t quite have the depth, or perhaps age and experience, to understand why Nola might be freaking out when her boyfriend chooses his wife over her.
The real star of Match Point is Allen himself, showing us what he can really do when he’s not making us laugh. The result is one of the best films of the year.