dir: Woody Allen
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He tried to stealth this one under our radars, he did. Outwardly, there’s practically no signifiers to indicate that this is a Woody Allen film. It’s a drama, and he hasn’t done a ‘serious’ drama since the days where he was directly ripping off Ingmar Bergman.
In the last few years he’s been content to peddle mostly bland, ineffectual comedies about the same topics he’s always been focussed on. They include the loving of Barely Legal women by men old enough to be their grandfathers, repeated infidelity, being chronically misunderstood, the full spectrum of neurotic behaviours, the unattainability of ‘true’ love that works for any period of time, or the lack of any real lasting happiness.
All hilarious stuff. He puts out a film a year on the cheap, with name actors who work for him practically for free, so it doesn’t really matter that they’re crap. He’s iconic, even if no-one watches his movies any more, and he’s as prolific as Bollywood, with about as much restraint and as little subtlety. Usually.
Match Point is Allen taking another swipe at Crimes and Misdemeanours, because, despite its critical success, maybe he doesn’t feel he got it right the first time. But in opposition to Crimes and Misdemeanours, the theme here is more so the role that luck plays in people’s lives. If you don’t like the word ‘luck’ because of its superstitious connotations, then maybe ‘blind chance’ or ‘random chaos’ suits you more, you pedants.
In essence, what moral outcomes arise from the idea that there is no justice, no grand plan to the universe, no divine system ensuring the good get the goodies and the evil get punished? Well, you can wonder all you want until Uncle Woody sets you straight.
The line summarising the story’s point regards a man saying he’d rather be lucky than good. And it ends with a blessing on a child, a recommendation or a fervent wish that instead of being great, the child should be lucky.
The point is further illustrated with the opening image of a tennis ball hitting the top of the net, and spinning in such a way where it could drop on either side of the net. The outcome, at that stage, is completely out of the hands of the players, the judges, the spectators. Though of course physics governs the outcome, the result is down to chance. So, too, are there moments in our own lives when the righteousness of our actions, our niceness to puppies and old people, or our abject vileness has nothing to do with the eventual outcome of particular situations.
The tone is restrained, even flat, except when it veers into the melodramatic. The dialogue is functional, mostly not showy because he’s going for believability, not wit. The characters are mostly stock types, with all the generalisations that come with such ‘types’.
The story is set in London, and covers the class-jumping, social climbing of a former tennis pro called Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Though he played against the top seeds, he never cracked the big time, and thus is obliged to take a job as a tennis coach in order to afford his bedsit.
By ‘luck’, he becomes friends with a playboy (Matthew Goode) through a shared interest in opera, and from then on he really, really wants to be one of the family. The playboy has a sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer), so he’s in like Flynn would have been.
The family is ridiculously wealthy, with weekend mansions in the country and a massive corporation at their disposal. Who wouldn’t sacrifice their firstborn for a chance to get in on that, especially in a moral vacuum / hellhole like London, where lacking a thousand Euro in your pocket, the cops can legally put you in stocks so the public can hurl abuse and beakers of acid at you?
In some ways the story reminded me a lot of the Tom Ripley character created by Patricia Highsmith, especially in the portrayal of Chris. Meyers mostly plays the character as a blank sociopath; always polite, always putting on a performance for everyone, never getting upset or overwrought. Having come from poverty, he truly is a member of that aspirational class that will do anything for advancement.
But he’s not some Machiavellian maven; some cunning, deliciously evil villain who profits from the misery of others whilst charming their and our pants off. He's just some guy who wants everything given to him and doesn’t like upsetting people.
The only speed-bump in his meteoric trajectory is an American girl called Nola (Scarlett Johansson). Engaged to his wealthy friend, she is sexy and passion-inspiring, desirable and distant, and he is smitten. Obsessing sexually over Nola is the one thing Chris does which isn’t related to money, in fact would seem to be risking everything that he’s putting together for a comfortable life.
But none of this has anything to do with love, unless it’s a love of money.
Nola is an American actress trying and failing to get acting in London, which must surely be a metropolis of movie production. We get the impression that she’s not particularly good at her chosen craft, and to underscore the point, she puts in a mediocre performance just to make sure we get it. Of everything I’ve seen her in over the last few years, this would be one of her weakest performances, but it’s probably the material she’s given to work with.
Her character, as written and played, is unpleasant. In fact, almost everyone in the flick is not particularly likeable or interesting. Except maybe the playboy brother-in law, who, if the flick was made ten years ago, would have been played by Rupert Everett. And perhaps the patriarch of the family, played by the ever-reliable Brian Cox. Everyone else I would have been happy to see sewn in to a hessian sack and thrown into the Thames.
The first two-thirds of the flick are simple, dramatic scenes, sometimes degenerating into melodrama. Dull, in short, and predictable. The last part of the flick is where it significantly diverges from the expected. It doesn’t become more enjoyable, but it certainly becomes more interesting.
There are numerous, painful and painfully obvious references to Dostoevsky and even at one point Chris asks someone if they’ve seen the copy of Strindberg that he was reading. In case anyone failed to get it, Allen wants us to know that he’s read some books, and wants to rip off their themes for his movies again, just like in the good old days.
There are clear parallels with the character of Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment, though Allen’s point and Chris’ fate are significantly different in the wash-up. The character of Chris is definitely not an Allen surrogate like he usually writes into his movies. Those unlucky enough to be Allen fans have seen everyone from Kenneth Brannaugh, Will Ferrell, John Cusack to Woody Allen play Woody Allen countless times. So it’s nice that this one has a minimal Allen presence.
What he has to say by film’s end is awful and depressing. But it’s appropriate, and interesting to see that at 71 he can still pull something like this together, long after we thought the pulling was over.
But don’t go expecting something uplifting, thrilling or thigh-slapping. The only slapping of thighs will arise with the busy hands of the fat Dutchman sitting next to you, so feel free to change seats. He won’t follow you. Probably
6 times Woody Allen clearly wishes there was an easier way to get rid of mistresses out of 10
“The innocent are sometimes slain to make way for grander schemes. You were collateral damage.” Chris, Match Point