Many years ago now, in my relatively early days as Gambit Weekly's film critic, I had the privilege of interviewing writer-director Woody Allen in conjunction with A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, his 11th film in an incredibly prolific career that has now stretched to 35 features with another already in the can. As I talked with Allen about many topics, I could not know of the great work that lay ahead of him in the coming decade including such important pictures as Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo and Hannah and Her Sisters. But I was, of course, thoroughly familiar with his earlier work, the hilarious early comedies and his brilliant move into a poignant mix of romance, humor and existential reflection in his landmark '70s films Annie Hall and Manhattan. By the time we talked, Allen had also made the straight drama Interiors and one of his most challenging and elusive films, Stardust Memories, both of which, in separate ways, forecast philosophical concerns and artistic strategies to which he would return in the future.
Though Allen has continued to write and direct a movie a year for two more decades, he was already a major figure in world cinema, and I wanted to know how he accounted for it. I expected him, I guess, to speak of influences and inspirations, to cite works and individuals that he admired, to detail challenges he had endured and approaches he had mastered through difficulties overcome. But he didn't. He didn't tell me about any history of suffering, about any course of stubborn persistence; he didn't assure me of the virtues of hard work. Instead, he told me that his success was purely a matter of blind luck. Exhibiting nothing that I could detect as false humility, he assured me that he wasn't the funniest man making movies, that he was far from the smartest and that he knew plenty of people who worked harder than he did. Talent may be essential, he argued, but it wasn't sufficient. The world was full of diligent, deserving, talented unknowns. Success was largely the product of luck, and he had had it. Allen didn't tell me that day of our conversation that he believed luck was fickle and morally blind, but he believes that, too, and that's the precise philosophical premise of his current film Match Point.
Set in London rather than his habitual New York, Match Point is the story of a man who believes in luck and changes the course of his life in search of some. Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) is a former professional tennis player whose game fell just short of the top tier. He was good enough to play close matches against the likes of Andre Agasse and Pete Sampras, but not quite good enough to capture a major title. We meet Chris as he decides to drop off the tournament circuit and begin life as a club manager and teaching professional. In this new world, luck smiles on Chris quickly and often. At his tennis club he meets and becomes friends with Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), the son of a wealthy business magnate. Tom introduces Chris to his sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer), Chloe is almost instantly smitten, and the two soon become a couple. Chloe intercedes with her father (Brian Cox), and Dad offers Chris a managerial position with his company; soon Chris is running an entire division.
Meanwhile, Chris has also made the acquaintance of Tom's fiance, an American actress named Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), and though they obviously shouldn't, Chris and Nola soon begin an affair that ultimately tumbles both their lives into frantic crisis. Though this ongoing act of infidelity provides the fuel for the picture's narrative engine, its motivation is less well established than we might like. Nola is beautiful, but so is Chloe. In very slight ways, one might worry about Chloe as spoiled and controlling, but in only in very slight ways. For the most part she's sexy, sweet and supportive. Perhaps Allen simply counts on us to conclude, as his characters have overtly asserted in other films, that the heart wants what the heart wants. But maybe, too, we're to see Nola's allure as being tied to the forbidden. Or perhaps we're to conclude from some of Chris' proclamations about the rule of pure fate in human existence, that he believes he can do anything he wants because luck, and only luck, will determine whether his actions have consequences.
All of this is smart and involving. And Allen's spot-on dialogue produces fine and nuanced performances throughout the cast. In these regards Match Point stands with such somber but stimulating Allen films as Crimes and Misdemeanors or Sweet and Lowdown. But those films offered rays of hope that Match Point doesn't. And as expressed here, Allen's pessimistic view of the human animal and his conviction that the universe is governed by whimsy rather than justice sends us home uncomfortable and depressed.
- Return of serve: Chris (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) puts the ball in Nola's (Scarlett Johansson) court in Woody Allen's new drama, Match Point.