The man who said 'I'd rather be lucky than good' saw deeply into life. People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It's scary to think so much is out of one's control. There are moments in a match when the ball hits the top of the net, and for a split second it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward and you win…or maybe it doesn't, and you lose.—Chris Wilton in MATCH POINTIn MATCH POINT former tennis pro Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), now a club instructor, aspires to rise from his working class Irish roots. At work he befriends Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), the son of a wealthy London businessman, and is introduced to their world of luxury. Chris charms Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) but is drawn to Nola (Scarlett Johansson), a sensual American actress engaged to Tom. In no time at all Chris marries into the family and is arranged with a prominent job in their company, but he continues to obsess about Nola, who by this time is no longer linked to Tom. Chris tracks her down eventually. They begin a torrid affair, but after awhile Nola becomes impatient that Chris will not leave his wife for her.
Part thriller and part morality play, MATCH POINT is Woody Allen’s best film in a decade (1996’s EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU). It’s also a marvelous companion with CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, one of Allen’s greatest works. In CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, God’s inaction and failure to punish is viewed as passive complicity with evil. MATCH POINT’S black-hearted protagonist doesn’t consider God a factor. In his nihilistic worldview, the universe is cruel and uncaring. Such a philosophy liberates Chris to satisfy his desires without a moral framework. His actions are icily calculated and free of empathy for those he uses, yet it doesn’t seem as though his amorality would inevitably lead to evil. The culmination of Chris’ narcissism comes in a chilling sequence that rhymes with a similar scene in CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS. Allen has questioned religion throughout his career, but in MATCH POINT he shows how a lack of faith can be disturbing.
MATCH POINT is not a declaration of the value of firm belief—it denounces theodicy, after all—but a caution against the outright rejection of it. Chris believes it is better to be lucky than good. While his illustration, quoted above, likely defines “good” as talented, the film expands its meaning to moral. After all, if, in Chris’ view, it doesn’t matter what you do because there are no moral absolutes, why wouldn’t one think that counting on luck is a better way to live than being decent, an honorable idea but not one that is always rewarded.
Initially Chris appears to be in the mold of Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley character, a chameleon looking to obtain the finer things even if it means assuming Dickie Greenleaf’s identity and killing him. Chris doesn’t give the impression that he would go to that extreme. He isn’t deceitful so much as he is malleable to the demands of those who can provide what he wants, although, like Ripley, he is an empty vessel. Plus, Chris doesn’t need to pose as Tom Hewett (or murder him) to gain wealth or have Nola. Nevertheless, he shares with Ripley a pathological need for upward social mobility and the willingness to protect it at all costs.
Aside from some scratchy, old records on the soundtrack, the minimalist credits, a Dostoyevsky reference, and the Bergman-influenced nature of MATCH POINT, the film isn’t immediately recognizable as Allen’s work. The English setting opens up Allen’s filmmaking. Having a new city to discover does wonders for his visuals, which cinematographer Remi Adefarasin soaks in color and gives excellent depth of field.
The stable of British actors brings a fresh quality to Allen’s dialogue, changing the cadence and sound even if there’s not a substantial difference from anything else he’s written. To the relief of Allen fans, Rhys-Meyers is anything but a surrogate Woody. As the brooding, smoothly malicious Chris, Rhys-Meyers conveys a cruel elegance in everything he does. The film seems to view Chloe as somewhat of a silly woman, a trust fund princess who dabbles in the artistic community and wants a baby, but Mortimer invests her with an uncommon amount of sympathy. Johansson is perfectly cast as a femme fatale, even if the actress and the character are atypical for Allen’s fantasy figures. The break from the mold finds steam rising from Chris and Nola’s scenes, possibly the first time erotic tension can be found in the director’s oeuvre.