Ever since Match Point premiered at the Cannes film festival eight months ago, Woody Allen has been receiving some of his best reviews in years. His new film has been lauded as a much-needed change of pace for a director who has long been stuck in his ways, and in some ways it is that. It is set in England, not in New York (though earlier films like Love and Death and Everyone Says I Love You also took place, at least in part, outside the United States). It is a mostly serious dramatic feature, not a comedy (though earlier films like Interiors and Another Woman were even more explicit in their emulation of Ingmar Bergman’s sobering style). And it dwells just a little more than usual on the actual eroticism of sex, whereas earlier films tended to focus on the social ramifications of adultery rather than the sexual activity itself (though a few, like Husbands and Wives, were a tad more graphic).
But to this former Woody Allen fan, Match Point comes across as little more than a retread of familiar themes and narrative devices. Worse, the urgency that marked some of his earlier dramas has been replaced by a sort of complacency. There was a time, during the 1980s especially, when Allen seemed to be seriously wrestling with questions about God and the meaning of life. This was most explicit in Hannah and Her Sisters, where Allen played a hypochondriac who experiments with different religions after a series of ominous medical tests forces him to face the fact that he will die some day, and in Crimes and Misdemeanors, where Martin Landau played a Jewish ophthalmologist who gets away with murder, literally, and worries that his success has proved that a just God doesn’t really exist, and therefore life has no meaning. Admittedly, Allen’s symbolism could be pretty heavy-handed — one of the eye doctor’s patients was a rabbi who goes blind — but you at least got the feeling that these issues mattered to him. Not so much now, though.
Match Point begins with an image of a tennis ball flying back and forth over a net. Over this image, the voice of tennis pro Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) tells us that it is better to be lucky than to be good. Luck, he says, is what makes us who we are and puts us where we are — and despite all the effort that can go into, say, a tennis game, sometimes the outcome depends on a moment of pure blind chance, like when a ball hits the top of the net and spins straight up in the air, and could just as easily come down on one side as the other.
There is an element of truth to this. I can vividly recall learning the facts of life when I was six or seven, and marveling that I could just as easily have been any one of a million different people, depending on which sperm had made contact with the egg; and, since my family spent a year in Communist Poland back then, I was acutely aware of the fact that my family and the country of my birth were only two of the myriad environments into which I could have been born; and I did, indeed, feel lucky to be who and where I was.
I mention these old thoughts of mine because fecundity and geographic fortune are recurring motifs in Match Point. Chris comes from a poor Irish family, and he has left competitive sports for a simple job as a London tennis instructor. He quickly befriends Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), a member of the aristocracy who introduces Chris to his family, including his sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer), who falls in love with Chris and marries him and then tries very hard to conceive a child with him. One morning, over breakfast in their luxurious apartment, Chloe tells Chris about an earthquake that she read about in the news, which killed hundreds of people in China. It is the victims’ bad luck that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it is Chris’s good luck that he and his wife can turn this faraway tragedy into small talk.
The thing is, only Chris seems to realize, or care, that luck is what separates him and his in-laws from the rest of the world. And when he meets Tom’s fiancée, Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), he immediately takes a liking to this sensual but hard-edged American actress who just can’t seem to win the approval of Tom’s parents or get a break at her auditions. She, like he, has had the good fortune to hook up with the upper class, but she is still struggling in a way that Chris can appreciate. This leads to the usual infidelities, but Allen has never been all that good at drawing us into the minds of his characters. He would much rather spell it all out and have the characters describe and analyze each other through expository dialogue; he would rather, it seems, have a character ask “Why are you so cold to me?” than allow us to sense or experience this coldness for ourselves. And without this shared experience, it is difficult to stay interested in Chris and Nola’s affair.Indeed, for the first half of the film or so, we watch the characters move around like pieces on a chess board, wondering not so much what it would be like to be in their shoes but what larger point all this social and sexual activity is building up to. And when the payoff comes, it’s a doozy, all right. Chris reveals himself to be capable of actions that most people would recoil from in horror, and Rhys-Meyers almost makes the character’s frustrated and self-shocking efforts to cross that line seem believable. But not quite. There are a few suspenseful surprises left, especially when a couple of police officers (played by James Nesbitt and Ewen Bremner) enter the picture, but the movie never shakes its sense of contrived artificiality, and Chris’s trite self-justifications — a topical reference to “collateral damage” here, a quote from Sophocles there — feel pretentious and tacked on.
Unfortunately, by developing his characters so superficially, Allen makes it impossible to feel the depth of the horror that he is clearly aiming for. His past films, whatever their flaws, had characters with some weight who plunged into the abyss when they came to believe that life was meaningless. But the characters in Match Point are so light they almost float; it’s the difference between dropping a rock and a piece of paper. Along the way, Allen recycles many of his familiar tropes, from a reference to two characters’ “intertwined neuroses” to the panic attack that another character endures when things aren’t going his way. It may be true that Match Point marks a change of pace from Allen’s more recent films, since it is nowhere near as forgettable as the movies he has made over the past decade; but it often harks back to his earlier, and dare I say more relevant, work.
2 stars (out of 4)
Talk About It
1. Chris says everything in life comes down to “blind chance, no design.” Does the film support his view? Note the many references to luck. Note also how someone assumes that one crime victim got it by “blind chance,” when we know the crime was actually “designed.” Is it always wrong to see design in what appears to be blind chance? How do we tell the difference?
2. Chris and his in-laws briefly debate whether faith or despair is the path of least resistance. What do you think? Does it vary? Does it make a difference? Is one path necessarily better than the other depending on how much resistance is involved?
3. Chloe is optimistic that she and Chris will “get lucky” and conceive a child; in the meantime, Nola becomes pregnant and says, “It seems like a blessing, it’s a sign.” What role do random chance and divine Providence play in the creation of new life? What does this film say about the nature of life inside the womb? Outside the womb?
4. Chris speculates that his feelings for Chloe and Nola may be “the difference between love and lust.” Do you think he actually loves either woman? If not, why not? If so, then how does he show it?
5. One police officer says, “We’re not making any moral judgments, we’re just investigating a crime.” Can the two be separated that easily? If you were the police officer, how would you have handled that situation?
The Family Corner
For parents to consider
Match Point is rated R for some sexuality. The sex consists mostly of people moving under blankets, ripping off shirts, or massaging each other; however, nudity is implied, not shown. There is some profanity of the “God” and “Christ” variety, and when one character says of his father, “After he lost his legs, he found Jesus,” another character says, “That doesn’t sound like a fair trade.” There is also some violence, mostly offscreen.
— A version of this review was first published at Christianity Today Movies.