For Woody Allen’s sake, it is a good thing that the majority of the country–namely movie reviewers–aren’t casually reading great books like Crime and Punishment, a book the main character, Chris Walton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), reads in an early scene in Allen’s latest release Match Point. As if insisting that we need to know Dostoevsky to appreciate his film, Allen frames the cover of the book at the very center of the camera and then holds that shot. The more one thinks about the characters, plot, philosophical content, or even the humor of Dostoevsky’s classic, the more disappointing is Allen’s film. Still, on its own terms, Match Point is worth seeing and worth puzzling over, even if in the end it suggests certain possibilities that Allen may never have entertained.
The first of Allen’s films to be set in London, Match Point features Chris Walton as a young, former pro-tennis player without the ambition or skills to have made it to the top. As the action begins, Chris is settling into a job teaching tennis at a ritzy club, where he meets up with Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), who is from a well-established, affluent family. Soon involved with Tom’s pleasant but plain sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer), Chris becomes an adopted son and is given a promising job in the father’s company. But his heart, or at least his groin, is set aflutter by Tom’s American fiancé, Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), an aspiring but as yet unsuccessful actress. Initial resistance gives way to realized passion, which itself cedes to conventional restraint. Eventually, Tom breaks things off with Nola, who returns to the United States, while Chris marries Chloe and becomes increasingly comfortable in the sort of life to which he had always aspired. Still restless, Nola returns to London, where she runs into Chris and Chloe at the Tate Modern. Chris insists on reigniting the affair, Nola complies, and the two begin a series of regular, clandestine meetings at her apartment. Meanwhile, Chris grows increasingly distant from Chloe and what he sees as her fanatic desire to become pregnant. The tensions and growing sense that Chris will have to choose between the comfortable status Chloe’s family affords him and his passion for Nola are all quite predictable, and sadly so for a film that wants to play up the surprising role of chance in our lives.
Match Point is a much better story than the vast majority of contemporary releases. The film is saved by its last 20 minutes or so, which finally deliver the unexpected twists of chance the film promised. The clever reversals at the end not only dramatize the role of chance but also make some suggestive, if indirect, references to Crime and Punishment.
Critics, always desperate to write about something significant, are lauding Allen’s latest as a return to form. It is a return of sorts, that’s true. Most critics note that the big issues here call to mind Allen’s justly celebrated Crimes and Misdemeanors, in which Allen pressed the great questions of guilt, punishment, and the existence of God. But in Match Point, God is no longer even a possible character in the story, and the main character lacks the gravity and complexity of Martin Landau’s Dr. Rosenthal. Less noticed is the way this film is something of a throwback to Allen’s early, Bergman-influenced period. Allen never came close to rivaling Bergman, the master of familial guilt and self-laceration in a world where God is silent. The characters in Match Point lack even the inner depth of the characters in Allen’s aptly named Interiors (1978). (It remains striking how much better Bergman is at framing these issues and at dialogue and character, as is evident from a comparison of Allen’s Match Point with Bergman’s 2005 release Saraband.)
By contrast, even the title of Allen’s Match Point is a bit misleading. A phrase for the deciding point in a tennis contest, “match point” calls to mind the culminating moment in an epic battle. Yet Allen’s film focuses not so much on grand contestants or on victory and loss; instead, the focus is on the way luck, regardless of talent, determines outcomes, by, for example, the chance bounce of ball, as it hits the net and then either goes over or falls back. In an opening voiceover, Chris comments on “how much of the outcome of one’s life is out of one’s control” and later observes that scientists tell us “all existence is here by blind chance.”
The concluding events of the film seem on the surface to support the thesis that the universe is ruled by blind chance, that there is no ultimate justice. The result is not so much a deepening of the sense of mystery as a straightforward resolution in favor of mere chance. The mystery for Allen has less to do with whether chance or something else ultimately rules than with a different sort of question. When justice is concerned, is it better to be good (just) or lucky? Might luck in this area constitute the greatest curse?
But the final frames suggest an alternative interpretation, one not likely considered explicitly by Allen. Allen has said that one of his earliest images regarding the plot of this film had to do with a murder wherein someone murders two people in order to make it look as if the intended victim was killed purely by accident. Well, something like that happens in the penultimate events of the film; and, in a spirit of resignation, everyone laments the horrifying “bad luck” of one of the victims. But viewers know that what appears to be mere chance has behind it intentionality.
That leaves open the possibility that Chris might be wrong when he argues that escaping detection, the absence of external punishment, confirms the meaninglessness of the universe. From Augustine forward, it is assumed that the most horrifying punishment God can inflict on sinners is to leave them to wallow in their own sin, as their humanity erodes and they exist in false security, believing that they have gotten away with their crimes. Some may well see the haunting final images of Allen’s film as a confirmation of precisely that claim.
– Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.