Chris (Johnathan Rhys-Meyers), the focus of Woody Allen’s MATCH POINT is an existential man in the proper Sartrian mold making his way in a world, he will learn, that is ruled by the short of absurdist chaos favored by Jean-Paul’s arch-rival, Camus. So much for free will, bad faith, and making one’s own luck. Forget the usual Allen schtick, or the scattershot, often inspired one-liners of LOVE AND DEATH or SLEEPER, this hearkens to what may be referred to as his blue period that included such deadly serious films as HUSBANDS AND WIVES and CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS.
Luck, good and bad, is a word and a concept that looms large in this tale. Be it a chance meeting at a party or a street corner, or asking the right question of one’s tennis pupil, which is what sets everything in motion. The pupil is Tom (Matthew Goode), the scion of the excruciatingly wealthy Hewitt family. Chris is the teacher, an Irish ex-tennis pro newly arrived at an exclusive London club catering to the more than well-to-do. The question is where’s a good place to buy opera CDs. Is it luck or something more that Tom’s father (Brian Cox), has given scads of money to London’s leading opera company? And when an invitation to join him and his family at tomorrow night’s performance is forthcoming, is it chance, or perhaps, though never directly addressed, a certain amount of homework on Chris’ part that has worked its magic? There’s also magic when Tom’s sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer), joins them in the posh opera box and never quite gets around to paying attention to what is transpiring on stage, so very obviously taken is she with this handsome and oh so quietly charming young man. So are Tom’s parents. An invitation to spend a country weekend with them at their estate follows as does the fateful encounter with Tom’s voluptuous American fiancée, Nola (Scarlett Johansson), the struggling, impoverished actress that Tom’s mother (Penelope Wilton) can’t stand but that Chris likes just a little too much. The well-laid plans, or the luck, that’s brought Chris to the brink of wealth and power, are suddenly, irresistibly thrown awry by Nola’s the pouty lips, come-hither persona, and a blond radiance heightened by Allen’s careful lighting of Johansson.
The interplay of characters is endlessly fascinating, with unexpected revelations that are, nonetheless, true to form as Chris and Nola play with fire, not to mention a return to the working classes, and the audience is kept on the edge of its collective seat waiting for someone to get burned. Rhys-Meyers and Johansson deliver properly complex and nuanced performances. Meyers is driven, ambitious, and competitive, but with a studiously unruffled veneer that is earnest and sincere, if just a shade too much of each. There is just a touch of mystery and danger about just how many veneers there are and what really lurks beneath them all. Johansson’s Nola is an emotional whirlwind, with each painfully intense emotion emphatically effervescing across her face in quick succession. The rest of the cast is equally compelling. The Hewitt’s real, if selective, warmth tempered with a casual noblesse oblige that is a subtle and pernicious sort of snobbery.
The script is intricate, intelligent, without being either ponderous or pretentious. On the contrary, it’s sly, even playful. It teases players and audience alike, confounding expectations while egging them on with a universe that promises meaning but doesn’t always follow through. That feeling is accentuated with the way Allen visually composes each scene, with the characters not quite synching up with the space they occupy, giving the sense that things are random and, to go back to that word, chaotic.
And so back to that concept of luck with which the film opens, or chance, or the word that’s never spoken in MATCH POINT, but always right there. Chaos. It plays no favorites, it makes no concessions. And neither does MATCH POINT, which, while unbeatably entertaining, is nothing less than a sleekly packaged,sharp consideration of the meaning of life. As to whether to laugh or to cry about what that is, that may be the only real choice we have.