Maybe all Woody Allen needed was a change of scenery. Actually, except for the accents, the London of his Match Point is a lot like his typical Manhattan milieu, a playground for the rich and well-educated. Still, the move has yielded his most bracing, sure-handed, satisfying film in at least a decade.
An opening voiceover suggests that the movie’s theme will be the importance of luck. That might sound trivial, but in fact the announcement is an artful bit of narrative misdirection from Allen, one of many throughout the film, since what the narrator self-servingly calls luck is actually the absence of justice (or karma, or moral order, call it what you will). Allen’s depiction here of a cosmos that’s morally indifferent to human behavior is even more chilling than the one in Crimes and Misdemeanors, especially since there’s no comic-relief subplot in Match Point.
The narrator is Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a club tennis pro who ingratiates himself with wealthy heir Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode) and his family. Soon Chris is married to Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) and is rising through the ranks of the Hewett business empire. The only thing threatening his perfect life is his affair with Tom’s fiancée, a struggling actress named Nola (Scarlett Johansson). You could call the attraction between Chris and Nola bad luck, but both make spectacularly horrible choices that turn the attraction into a crisis that threatens to destroy their lives and those of everyone around them. Johansson portrays Nola as no mere homewrecker but a figure worthy of sympathy for having put herself in an untenable situation. Rhys Meyers also earns sympathy, though his portrayal is more enigmatic, leaving you guessing how far he’ll take the affair, or else how far he’ll go to end it.
Some reviewers have said that there’s no Allen surrogate in this film, but protagonist and narrator Chris certainly qualifies. Starting with 1994’s Bullets over Broadway, Allen has made several films (including Deconstructing Harry and Sweet and Lowdown) about artists and writers who are creatively brilliant but morally bankrupt, as if to dismiss his own notorious romantic life as irrelevant to the merits of his work. Chris is an athlete, but he recalls Allen’s previous description of his younger self to several interviewers (including me) as a high-school jock who was no intellectual but picked up the right cultural references in order to impress well-educated women, as Chris does with Chloe. Chris reads Dostoyevsky, but he seems to have learned the wrong lesson from the Crime and Punishment author. (Or maybe the misreading is Allen’s). Yes, Dostoyevsky gives voice to characters with nihilistic or Nietzschean world views, but he ultimately affirms belief in a morally ordered universe. The likes of Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Crimes and Misdemeanors have usually argued the opposite, but at least in those the Allen character could find solace in culture (often jazz or movies). In Match Point, culture is a signifier of class and taste and offers no moral lessons or redemption to the characters. It’s up to the moviegoer to find solace, in the pleasures of Allen’s deft and devious storytelling skills.