Woody Allen has made a new style of movie. I’m not just talking about the fact that Match Point is a more serious film than his recent comedies, I’m talking about a style of storytelling and filmmaking with an unusual internal logic and consistency.
Plot takes center stage over character. We come to know the characters and follow them through the plot, but there is nobody in the cast that we really empathize with; we never really settle into anyone’s shoes.
R for some sexuality
Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is an ambitious tennis pro in England. He uses everything at his disposal to get ahead, and not just to the top of the tennis world, but into the world of wealth and power. He starts up a love affair with Chloe (Emily Mortimer), whose father has a bottomless supply of money. We never know if Chris is genuinely in love with Chloe. In fact, we never really know anyone’s true emotions for certain.
There is another woman in his life, too. Nola (Scarlett Johansson) is more vivacious than Chloe, but she has less in the way of money or prestige. Is she his true love, or just another female conquest?
Chris tries to balance his affections for both women. But, as Allen sets up in the very first shot, the ball must eventually fall on one side of the net or the other.
Pawns and Puppets
Chess and puppets are both apt metaphors for Match Point. The characters are pawns, or puppets, manipulated masterfully by Allen. Form and structure are imposed by a godlike storyteller who uses the invisible hand of fate to shape the drama into a satisfying tale.
As an example of how different Match Point is from a standard movie, look at Allen’s digressions into the police station. There comes a point when the fate of one of the characters hinges on what the cops decide. In order to justify a scene between two cops (in a conventional movie), the cops would have to be characters themselves. They would have to be set up early on and checked in on throughout the film. But in Allen’s omniscient storytelling style, we check in on the cops when it’s relevant to the story, and we leave them when the story no longer needs them. A less confident storyteller would try to integrate them somehow, but Allen unabashedly uses them like the puppets they are.
Interestingly, the main character is something of a string-puller himself. An early scene shows him reading Dostoevsky, which some critics have taken as simply a tip of the hat to Allen’s inspiration. (Some of Match Point’s plot is clearly borrowed from Crime and Punishment.) But the character then puts down the book and picks up the Cambridge Companion — a sort of Cliff’s Notes on Dostoevsky. Later, we learn that he was able to impress a person of influence with his knowledge of Crime and Punishment. Allen gives us strong suspicion to believe that Chris is more a cunning, ambitious man, than a student of literature.
Comedy and Tragedy
The sheer competence with which Allen directs is enough to earn Match Point a recommendation. The structure, the storytelling, the confidence of style are all impeccably crafted. For some, this may not be enough. And in fact, when the story took its darkest turn, my parents-in-law, expecting yet another Woody Allen comedy, seemed genuinely disturbed.
Luckily, the movie is gripping and entertaining as well as well-made. The first two thirds feel little like a Woody Allen drama, with enough comic moments to both entertain and to lull the audience into a sense of complacency. But the story is a heavy tragedy, disguised early on, but always revealing a tenor of foreboding. When the other shoe drops, the movie becomes even more riveting.