Crimes, Luck & Tennis?

A Meditation on Woody Allen’s MATCH POINT Before Oscar Time

By Rod Schecter

One might wonder if Woody Allen’s relationship with a different city is the revitalizing catalyst behind Match Point and the reason it is being heralded as a return to form for the Academy-Award-winning auteur. According to Allen, however, the location of Match Point and his own success have both been random consequences of his monumental luck.

In order to take back creative control of his movies, Allen decided to go overseas to protect his artwork from the meddlesome business people both financing and dominating American cinema—people who want to add their two cents along with their financial support yet who, according to Allen, have “nothing to offer in terms of writing or casting or looking at dailies or editing the picture.” The European market, on the other hand, seems to be much more welcoming to the needs of the filmmaker, including film executives who were comfortable in their role of financiers and happy to leave the art to the artists. This prompted Allen to go to the U.K.-based Dreamworks, who gave him complete creative control under the provisions that he stay in his budget, change the setting of the film from New York to London, and use a mostly British cast and crew. So while the setting may seem a primary component to Match Point’s success, it seems that chance alone was to blame for the trans-Atlantic journey from Allen’s native New York.

Yet none of this is obvious as you watch a film that glides across this foreign cityscape with as much grace and mastery as any of his New York projects, and one might even guess that he has lived in London for years. Perhaps it is just the urban landscape in general, replete with its jutting tips and scenic apertures, that allows his dramas to play so seamlessly. But Allen’s London, or at least the part we see, feels completely natural, like an exotic cousin of a close friend who bears all of the striking similarities we know and love but is still different in appealing ways we can’t always describe. Yet some Londoners claim that his portrayal of the original city is myopic in its scope, mainly due to the fact that he only shows about five percent of it—the five percent in which only the wealthy have the privilege of residing. One might argue, however, that this is simply a casualty of Allen’s story, which happens to focus on that small percentage of people who are lucky enough to live in said luxury, and not the general population—let alone the East Enders one might find in a Charles Dickens or Arthur Morrison novel.

Whether or not London works effectively as a third character, Allen still claims it was “very easy” to Anglicize his film. Once finished, he simply sent the script off to some British friends to make sure he didn’t “screw anything up” and so he could accurately capture the nuances of this other city (or at least the upper crust of it). He also claims that the natural talent and improvisational skills of his cast (Allen doesn’t do read-throughs or rehearsals) had as much to do with randomly capturing the nuances of English syntax and mannerism as his script, only adding to the other chance successes that he claims are at the heart of this film: While actress Kate Winslet fell out of the project just before work began, he was lucky enough to cast Scarlett Johansson as the smoldering Nola Rice just one week before filming—an actress who was also lucky enough to nail her pivotal scene with Jonathan Rhys Myers just hours after she got off the plane. But all of this seems to be par for the life that Allen claims is “strictly based on luck.”

One might also wonder if this statement is just another of Allen’s trademarked self-deprecating stabs at his own success. “You go through life playing the hand you're dealt and I feel I’ve been dealt two high pair,” says Allen of a “small” talent that has brought him so many highly-regarded films ranging from slapstick comedies such as Bananas and Sleeper to more serious films like Interiors and Crimes and Misdemeanors (the film that critics have been citing when making some obvious comparisons to Match Point). His two high pair make up a beatable hand but “not terrible to bet with,” Allen says. And it seems like his bets are also paying off for his characters, as luck—and all the benefits it bestows upon the blessed—seems to be the primary, if not heavy-handed, focus of a film whose protagonist would “ . . . rather be lucky than good . . ..”

Whether or not the anonymous architect of this proclamation saw “deeply into life” as main character Chris Wilton claims, luck does seem to be the prevailing force in Allen’s statement on modern morality. It is a force we feel from the opening monologue to the primary climax, leading all the way up to the parting shot that wishes luck on a child whose father has already taken care of that for him (despite the underlying assertion that this simply isn’t possible). Returning to the themes of love, infidelity, ambition, material comforts and morality, Allen takes a more serious and, in some ways, more focused stab at identifying the primary and often conflicting motivations inherent in human behavior.

This time, instead of having the New York bourgeoisie as the characters of this film, we enter old money and the upper echelon of the British social hierarchy. Using an interesting and unpredictable tennis metaphor for its basic commentary on luck, we never know on which side of the net the ball will land in this story about Chris Wilton, former tennis star and social-climbing opportunist whose true ambitions aren’t always clear but are undeviatingly self-serving (pun not originally intended but still regretted). And Wilton, broodingly played by the intense yet sensitive Jonathon Rhys Meyers, is apparently brimming with luck as he befriends tennis student and wealthy socialite Tom Hewett (played by Mathew Goode). As luck (or more authorial forces) would have it, they just happen to share a love for the opera, which poses the perfect opportunity for Chris to meet Tom’s family and his doting yet diffident sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) who takes an instant liking to the charming but poor, self-made Irishman. While no medals will be pinned for predicting the outcome of this little scenario, Allen manages to keep the story line relatively fresh, as Wilton courts and marries Chloe in spite of his lustful pining for Tom’s coquettish American fiancée Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson). But his pelvic longings aren’t easily quelled even after he manages a brief tryst with Nola in the drenched wheat fields of the Hewett’s country estate.

And thus begins the affair that causes Chris’s seemingly divine luck to run out—at least temporarily—an affair that is complimented nicely by the two rather heated performances from Meyers and Johansson. Breathy stammers and gasps abound and oily bodies undulate as Nola and Chris play out their passions in secret, while Chris, without compunction, moves quickly up the ranks of his father-in-law’s business and tries to impregnate his unsuspecting wife—a wife whom he still loves in his own way, finding her “nice” but “boring.” But whether or not he genuinely loves Chloe is irrelevant—or at least trivial when compared to his passion for the saucy Nola who seems to dominate his every waking moment up until the conquest begins to present consequences that threaten to undermine the wealth and comforts he has schemed so hard to attain.

The ironic but contrived fact that Nola becomes pregnant with a child of “passion,” not of convenience like the one he is unsuccessfully trying to conceive with Chloe, is forgivable in its transparency because without the threat of disaster there is no story or at least one worth watching. I don’t think anyone would prefer to see an affair pulled off without a hitch to watching our protagonist try and squirm or, in this case, shoot his way out of the trouble that he has inadvertently devised.

Match Point works hard to evoke the moral dilemmas inherent in a life lived for greed, lust, passion, and ultimately material comfort, succeeding at making brilliant distinctions between these concepts and what they mean for each individual caught in their magnetic thrall. What we are left with is the gap between them or what Chris Wilton feels is the final difference between lust and love and just how far some will go to prevent one from destroying the other.

It’s no accident that Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment acts as a touchstone in this murder story that wants to test our conception of moral virtue in the face of self-preservation. But what is really being preserved here? While the question of morality is more black and white if survival were at stake, here we have a character willing to destroy life to preserve a lifestyle. Not exactly a fair exchange, but there are still moments when we can understand, sympathize, and even root for Chris—as amoral as he might be. Just what this says about us is debatable, but it’s certainly reminiscent of the themes that Allen has tackled in the past.

So, while Match Point manages to thrive on its own original energy for the most part, it’s hard not to draw comparisons to his 1989 film Crimes & Misdemeanors because their basic plots are almost identical when stripped down to their essentials (save the less-focused but largely humorous parallel plot line in the latter) and because they ask the same questions of the audience: What is more valuable: comfort or passion; luck or goodness; or, for Wilton, “lust or love?” (Whether or not Wilton is unlucky because he can’t have both in the same person doesn’t seem to be an issue.)

So while both Chris Wilton and Martin Landau’s Judah Rosenthal (Crimes & Misdemeanors) are willing to kill to prevent their passions from destroying their lives, the fact that they get away with it (luck plays its part here too) without moral or even penal ramifications is the key component that seems to underpin Allen’s luck theology: that goodness in both the secular and divine sense don’t mean shit in a random world where all that matters is who holds the better cards.

In the denouement of Crimes & Misdemeanors, Clifford Stern (played by Allen himself) touches on precisely this topic. Meta-fictional affectations aside, when faced with Judah’s murder story, a story that directly resembles Chris Wilton’s, Clifford seems to want to evoke the ending that Dostoyevsky gives the reader in Crime & Punishment. He seems to think that in order for the story to be tragic, the sinner must confess and face his moral maker while Judah insists, despite his own struggles with religion and its moral consequences, that this option simply isn’t a real one. In reality, God doesn’t see a damn thing, according to Judah, suggesting that the real tragedy is that we live in a world where questions of virtue weigh far less than moments of selfish necessity and that there is no sufficient punishment for amorality or, rather, that behaving morally or acting outside of our own self interest has no real-world reward. In other words: confession is not good for the soul if it means destroying the now. That is to say, if you’re fortunate enough to have something to lose anyway.

Perhaps this is why Raskolnikov in the classic Dostoyevsky novel needs God, must face God's wrath, and must eventually confess his sins. He has nothing else. While in our world (or at least a relatively realistic facsimile of it) Judah and Chris turn their back on moral behavior (in both senses) because they are faced with the impending now—all they have built, and all they have to lose. Perhaps they are reluctant to part with the mortal world because they have amassed far more material comforts than Raskolnikov could ever have dreamed, and perhaps it is precisely because Raskolnikov has nothing to lose, does divine morality make sense for him—in that it makes his life and, more importantly, his actions meaningful even if they are amoral and need to be repented. The fact that wealth and comfort give meaning to the lives of Allen’s characters certainly mirrors the values of post modern culture adequately, but whether or not this is supposed to be sad or disheartening is up for conjecture—a testament to Allen’s trust in an audience that may want to eschew directorial pandering.

In the end, maybe the lives of these characters just have different meanings because of the social context of their real gods—their creators. While Allen had the luck to “sleep with beautiful actresses” and win academy awards, Dostoyevsky had the misfortune to be imprisoned for defaulting on his gambling debts, his characters living in relative obscurity or “underground,” as he called it, perceiving the world through a mere “crack under the floor.” Whoever said wealth (the best luck of all) couldn’t buy happiness, obviously hasn’t seen this film where almost everyone uses it to pay for all the joys their luxury can afford.

But what does this all mean anyway? Is Allen saying that since Chris Wilton and the Hewett’s are lucky enough to have attained financial success that they are, in a phrase, beyond good and evil and thus able to facilitate nefarious activities without bearing the consequences—proving luck and luck alone to be a more powerful deity than the moral one found in Dostoyevsky’s monotheistic world?

Maybe. However, if comfort is much more valuable than passion and luck than goodness, then why are we still so fascinated by these things? Why does Nola Rice honestly expect Chris to “do the right thing” because his lust for her is so strong? And why does Angelica Houston’s Delores Paley demand validation from Judah that their passion meant something, awkwardly seeking to confront his wife because she feels implicit “promises were made?” While I’m sure there are exceptions, it does seem that most occidental fantasies center around the karmic “be good-get rewarded” clauses that religion, our parents, and Hollywood seem to offer us. But do we really believe in a just world despite all evidence to the contrary? Or is it just a function of the human condition to want what’s mutually exclusive? Yet Allen’s Match Point seems reluctant to answer these questions for us—forcing us to consider for ourselves what is most valuable—that is, if we are lucky enough to have the leisure time to figure all this stuff out.