His recent output – Celebrity, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending – was forgettable. All the faithful could do was dream of better days when the Woodman was churning out the most satisfying string of comedies of any director since Preston Sturges.
But Match Point stopped the slide. And the weird thing was, it wasn’t a comedy. Rather it was a Hitchcockian thriller about murder.
Previously, Allen’s attempts at “serious” (i.e., non-comedic) cinema – Interiors, September – were considered aberrations to be tolerated rather than enjoyed. If one of the great comic filmmakers felt the need to indulge his dark side every now and then, so be it.
But Match Point is a genuinely good movie, one that draws equally from Dreiser's An American Tragedy (and its movie incarnation, A Place in the Sun) and Allen's own 1989 classic Crimes and Misdemeanors. Aside from its thriller elements, it is a meditation about class, upward mobility, lust, and guilt.
And in another changeup, it is set not in Allen’s beloved New York City but in London.
Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who played Henry VIII in the Showtime series The Tudors) is a tennis pro, a working-class lad who charms his way into marrying Chloe (Emily Mortimer), the daughter of a rich captain of industry (Brian Cox).
Chris isn't exactly motivated by love. As far as he’s concerned it’s a marriage of convenience that will set him up financially and make him a rising star at his father-in-law's company.
And then along comes Nola (Scarlett Johansson), the American actress engaged to Chloe’s brother. Like Chris, she thinks of herself as an outsider in this world of hereditary privilege. It almost seems inevitable that their shared status will lead to an illicit relationship.
The affair is hot and heavy until Nola demands that Chris leave Chloe and his job to run away with her. At that point he must decide just how far he’ll go to safeguard his comfortable life.
Match Point starts out as a look at life among the English upper crust, but two-thirds of the way through it becomes a nail-biting examination of a perfect crime. It's a sneaky move on Allen's part, for against our wills he makes us sympathize with a criminal, has us hoping Chris can squirm out of the arms of the law.
At the same time the film is a meditation on chance, on how actions and events beyond our control can dictate our success or failure.
Allen makes his point in a prologue, where we see a yellow tennis ball being slammed back and forth over a net. Finally the ball hits the net and bounces up, freezing directly above it. Will it fall to the right or the left?
Somebody's life could depend on it.
Match Point is part of the Searching the Psyche Through Cinema series sponsored by the Greater Kansas City and Topeka Psychoanalytic Center.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.