Saturday, January 21, 2006

Review: Match Point

How often events, by chance, and unexpectedly, come to pass, which you had not dared even hope for!
- Terence, Roman playwright
Tock. Tock. Tock. Tock. Sweaty palms, immense concentration. Then all of a sudden the tennis ball clips the top of the net, and breaths are held as we watch the ball spin up straight into the air - which side does it land on? Whichever side it lands on, we can almost predict the commentator's next line: "Oh, how desperately lucky/unlucky was that!"

That's how Match Point, Woody Allen's latest flick, opens, sans the commentator but with a voiceover by the film's main protagonist, who informs us that life is often dependent on pure blind chance, and that it is often better to be lucky and good. The tone and main theme of the film is set, and we then proceed to dive into the story.

I've never watched a Woody Allen film before, and I wasn't actually all that interested in his latest, which is either his big comeback film or another false dawn in a long string of recent disappointments, depending on which critic you read. One of my friends dragged me along, however, and while I can't compare it to his other works, it certainly is one of the more thought-provoking films I've watched in recent times. So I thought I'll write up a full review, which I haven't done in some time.

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers plays Chris Wilton, a former tennis pro who had, against the odds, managed to overcome his Irish working-class background and who is now working as a tennis coach at an exclusive tennis club in London. He quickly befriends Tom Hewett (Chris Goode), a member of the upper classes and is introduced to his family. Tom's sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) quickly falls for him. A romance develops (though it feels as if Chris fell into the relationship rather than intentionally pursued it) and he begins his climb up the social hierarchy - taking up a business position with Tom's father's company, mingling with the rich and famous at cocktail parties.

Chris however, develops an attraction to Tom's fiancee Nola (Scarlett Johansson), a struggling American actress who does not have the approval of her future mother-in-law. They eye each other up, their desire for each other evident in their flirtatious behaviour; each time you see them together in a scene, sexual tension permeates the air. Chris marries Chloe, who is sweet but unable to provide the sizzle to their relationship, and this leads on to infidelity. There's more, of course, but to reveal more is to spoil the twists and turns that develop in this pseudo-tragic tale.

I say pseudo-tragic because on one level, the film plays like a classic tragedy, as we know that the protagonist is digging himself deeper and deeper into his sinkhole, wondering when it would all blow up in his face. But Allen counterbalances this with moments of "fate", either implicitly, such as chance meetings between characters (eg. Chris suddenly running into Nola when going to pick up his wife) , or explicitly, such as when Chloe comments on the dreadfulness of an earthquake in China - they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

What I found fascinating was that the film was actually a very good case-study of total depravity and the degenerative effects of sin. Total depravity does not mean that we are as evil as we possibly can be, but that no part of our human nature has been left untainted with sin. As Chris's juggling act becomes more complicated, we begin to see him engage in more and more destructive behaviour, and his rationalizations become more and more pronounced. More than once he claims to want to do what is "right", until we realise that by "right" he means what suits his own interests best. Indeed, when the climax arrives, we are left shell-shocked, and this is especially heightened by the more-than-competent acting of Rhys-Meyers. He plays Chris extremely well, and we can easily believe that Chris is just an ordinary guy like you and me, seeking to move up in this world. So his actions are made even more horrific by this seeming ordinariness.

On the negative side, I found the last part of the film, from the climax onwards, to being very heavy-handed. At this point, Woody decides to throw subtlety out of the window and piles on the themes of luck and blind chance relentlessly, even having Chris quote Sophocles at one point. This creates a contrived atmosphere that the movie is unable to shake off, and this ultimately detracts from the film.

So far I've approached the film mostly from an aesthetic viewpoint, but now I want to engage with some of its ideas. Early on in the film, as Chris, Tom, Chloe and Nola sit down to dinner and engage in small talk, Chris suggests that it is ultimately luck that counts for making it good in this world. Chloe disagrees, vehemently defending the notion of hard work to make it big. We then get this exchange between Chris and Tom:

"My father lost both his legs in an accident, and found Jesus."

"Sounds like a poor trade to me, old boy."

Chris then offers his view, saying "Faith is the path of least resistance", possibly echoing the view held by Woody Allen himself. One should not attempt to hide behind religious superstition in light of a seemingly random universe, but be willing to be ruthlessly pragmatic even in the notoriously gray area of ethics. As Roger Ebert points out, greed, fear, and lust drive the action, but not guilt. Yet even Allen seems to recognise the weaknesses of his own position by pushing Chris to the logical conclusions of his outlook on life. There is a dissonance between the theme of luck and chance and the deliberateness with which Chris first pursues Nola, then in his attempts to conceal the affair. I thought Woody was very courageous in showing what happens when moral convictions go to seed, pushing Chris to the logical conclusions of his worldview, even if he might believe that there is no reasonable alternative. The true horror is when we recognise that if Chris is to be tripped up, it would not be due to his moral shortcomings, but by chance. And what about us, then?

Of course, here, I'll have to respectfully disagree with Chris' conclusions. The way his life subsequently plays out is enough to reveal that the path he chooses is really the one of least resistance. Can he continue with life as before? Actually, he can, dependent on fate, which way the ball drops. But the price he pays is tremendous. Perhaps the trade-off he chose was the poor one after all. For in the end, contrary to what one policeman says late in the film: "We're investigating a crime, not making a moral judgment", the two ultimately go together, since the fact/value split cannot be maintained indefinitely.

A few final words. Don't watch this uncritically, especially as Chris is played sympathetically. My friend remarked how he strangely felt like rooting for Chris the whole movie, and I felt the pull myself. Secondly, Allen apparently has not pulled off the Britishness of the film convincingly, as many British critics have complained that it doesn't feel right. (Not being British, I can't really tell.) The audience I saw it with laughed at some moments where I guess they thought the attempts at being British failed miserably, which means that Woody doesn't quite manage to reach the depths of horror he's aiming for - in fact, some people giggled at the film's pivotal moment.
That's a shame, but despite its flaws, this will certainly be a film to ponder over.

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