Truly Great Movies: Match Point (2005)
There are quite a few Woody Allen movies that I could choose to write about in this category,but the one I keep constantly referring to and daydreaming about is this one – a very clever tale regarding the idea that luck is more of a determining factor in one’s destiny that either talent or faith.
Match Pointis a haunting and biting morality tale that borrows heavily from two seemingly different arenas. The first is the world of opera, in which good and evil progress along a dramatic arc, culminating in a plot-changing climax in which the bad guy meets his appropriate doom. The second world is that of tennis, in which athleticism and drive are sometimes no match for that instant in which the ball hits the top of the net. At that moment, it is pure chance as to which opponent’s side it will favor.
The protagonist of the story is Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a former tennis player who (based on the commentary by others around him) was once an up-and-comer, but (in his own words) he never had the grit or love to take it to the next level. As the film begins, he finds a job as a tennis pro for a posh club in London. There, he meets the amiable and good-hearted Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), who shares with Chris a love of opera and classic literature. At first, Chris seems humble, almost scrappy, the kind of man who has pulled himself up from a middle class life and wants more in the world. He is charming without being self-aggrandizing. Chris gradually works his way into the upper class world of the Hewetts, capturing the heart of their daughter Chloe (Emily Mortimer) and the admiration of her father, Alec (Brian Cox). The Hewetts own a capitalist venture about which the film gives few details, but considering the size of their country “estate”, we can assume it is a successful one.
In a more traditional film, these upper class Brits might be stuffy or cold, stereotypical representatives of an outdated way of life. In fact, the Hewetts are kind, helpful and open to welcoming someone like Chris into their midst. They believe in determination and the power of hard work, and, as Chloe states in a memorable dinner conversation, they believe in faith and goodness when it comes to setting the universe straight. It is during this intriguing conversation that the audience begins to see the key to Chris’s worldview. He is firm believer in luck and coincidence. His narration that opens the film clearly states, “The man who said ‘I’d rather be lucky than good’ saw deeply into life. People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It’s scary to think so much is out of one’s control.”
Alec gives Chris a job in his company, and Chris is intelligent and able, rising quickly into a world he both understands and is cunning enough to convince others he was born to live in all along. This insular land of expensive theater tickets, long weekends in the country and cars with company drivers suits him well. It is an almost seamless transition. Almost.
The wrench in the works is Tom Hewett’s slinky fiance, Nola. Played by Scarlett Johansson, she is a struggling actress who is long on sex appeal and short on common sense. She strikes Chris’s Achilles Heel, showing him a life of unreserved passion and living day by day in direct contrast to all he has fought to achieve. Nola chain smokes, drinks and has no great talent to speak of. She is the Hewett matriarch’s worst nightmare, but her charisma draws Chris in until he is powerless to resist.
Eventually, Chris marries Chloe Hewett, moving into a breathtaking flat on the South Bank overlooking the Thames, and taking over the corner office in his father-in-law’s firm. Perfect. And then there’s Nola, who is perfectly dangerous. Their affair energizes Chris with its lawless passion. That is, until it becomes a liability. Chris and Chloe are infertile, and eventually Nola ends up in a situation entirely logical, if inconvenient.
Chris’s favorite novel is Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky; this novel rears its head several times in the film, foreshadowing Match Point’s stunning ending. The films last half hour is tense, dark and harrowing. As in any great opera or morality tale, the bad guy’s dastardly deeds come forward for judgment. Chris, in a moment of weakness, states, “It would be fitting if I were apprehended… and punished. At least there would be some small sign of justice – some small measure of hope for the possibility of meaning. ” Yet Chris, unlike Raskolnikov, does not believe justice will be dealt out by a higher power. The ending of Match Point hinges on a symbolic moment of chance that seems to verify all that Chris proposes to the audience in his opening narration.
Allen’s ending may be shocking to some who are expecting good to triumph over evil. The movie’s final scene lingers with me long after the credits have rolled. It’s good sometimes to walk away from something unsatisfied, still thinking about the consequences and limitations of what we can’t control. This is the power and genius of Match Point.