Crosstalk: Match Point
Nathan Rabin: Hey Noel, I don't know if you feel the same way but for me being a film critic means existing in a state of perpetual disappointment. This is particularly true when it comes to Woody Allen, the idol of my childhood and bane of my adulthood. Every year whispers circulate wildly that Allen's new movie is a stunning return to form. At the very least Allen's recent films promise some level of novelty. Hey, Allen's doing Annie Hall for the teenybopper set (Anything Else)! He's back to doing straight-up broad comedy (Small Time Crooks)! He's channeling Phillip Roth (Deconstructing Harry)! He's spoofing the movies (Hollywood Ending)! He's going half-drama, half-comedy (Melinda & Melinda)! And now Match Point is being hailed as Allen's big creative comeback. I'm not buying it.
Sure, Match Point looks great. All of Allen's films do. That's one of the perks of having your pick of the world's greatest cinematographers (though Remi Adefarasian obviously doesn't have the track record of a Sven Nykvist). And I think it's great that Allen's working outside his comfort zone a little by dallying with a thriller. And on a technical level at least Match Point is far more accomplished than anything Allen's done in ages.
But for me Match Point shares nearly all the faults of Allen's recent work. I found it devoid of life and vitality, the maddeningly hermetic work of someone whose curiosity about the world dissipated long ago. I didn't believe in its characters or find them compelling or plausible. I found its dialogue stiff and labored and its examination of class nearly as shallow and superficial as its dorm-level philosophizing. As for the role luck plays in the film I suppose I have an innate aversion to movies that spell out their THEMES and SYMBOLISM and RELEVANT MOTIFS with such a heavy hand. In this and countless other respects Allen violates the sacred dictum to show rather than tell (see also: class, money and all discussions thereof).
Also I found Match Point to be largely devoid of wit or perhaps its wit was so dry and subtle it passed for humorlessness. You single out the table-tennis flirtation in you review but for me having characters banter flirtatiously during ping-pong is about as original or clever as having antagonists discuss their contrasting strategies or philosophies as they play chess.
Obviously we're going [SPOILER WARNING] to have to get around to disclosing the big third act twist but for me all it meant was that a lame, third-rate drama with characters I couldn't care less about had morphed semi-engagingly but less than transcendentally into a second-rate thriller populated by characters I couldn't care less about. By the end of Match Point I still felt as if I no had no stake whatsoever in its protagonist's soul. Obviously you liked the movie a lot more than I did. Did you feel otherwise?
Noel Murray: Well, first off, I thought the ping-pong gag was relatively clever because Jonathan Rhys-Meyers' character is a tennis pro, which makes him ludicrously overqualified to beat Scarlett Johansson's character in a miniaturized version of the game; and it's just that overconfidence that ultimately undoes him. It's not a brilliant conceit, but it's the mark of a filmmaker who's at least got a little on the ball.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that Match Point is the first Woody Allen movie I've seen since The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion (which I can just barely remember). But I've seen all the preceding films, and I have a special soft spot for Allen's adventurous and underrated '90s output, including (and maybe especially) Deconstructing Harry.
I should also add that I too think Match Point has been generally overrated. The first hour is kind of deadly, and though I'm more tolerant than you of Allen's blunt statements of THEME–probably because by now it seems more a stylistic quirk than a failing–I have to admit that all these classy European actors made the unnatural dialogue sound like it was cut out of flannel. Strictly puppet theater.
Was I invested in the characters? In the second hour, yes. [HERE COME THE SPOILERS, FOLKS] Granted, by the time Rhys-Meyers gets around to solving a problem like Johansson, her nagging had become so repetitive that was ready to off her myself. But the mounting irritation is just a prelude to all kinds of emotional engagement to come. Leave aside the philosophical overkill for a moment. Didn't you think the scenes leading up to the murder and the scenes immediately afterward were white-knuckle gripping?
NR: I didn't find the scenes leading up to and following the murder to be particularly gripping. Engaging? Sure. Artfully assembled? Yeah. But gripping? No, because the film utterly failed to engage me on an emotional level. A big part of this is attributable to both the weaknesses in Jonathan Rhys-Meyers' performance and the way the character is written. Like so many of Allen's characters he's given the fashionable accessories of complexity and depth–the dog-eared copy of Dostoyevsky, the propensity for quoting the wisdom of the ancients, the love of opera–in place of genuine depth or complexity. As played by Rhys-Meyers the character's a blank, good-looking cipher, a puppet on Allen's strings rather than a richly developed human being. And I guess I just wasn't buying his ultimate motivation. Sure, he seemed pretty enamored of the trappings of wealth. We know this because he all but up and says "I've grown pretty enamored of the trappings of wealth and would resort to violent measures to maintain it" but it is he obsessed enough with joining the landed gentry that he'd kill for it? More than once? I didn't think so. Was his character frustrated by Johansson? Sure? I'd go so far as to say he was vexed. But in order to buy the third act twist you have to believe that Rhys-Meyers is so desperate that he'd resort to murder and for me at least there's a real vacuum of bone-deep desperation in Rhys-Meyer's performance. Watching the film I couldn't help but wonder what someone like Christian Bale would have done with the lead role.
Sure there's an elegance to the storytelling long absent in Allen's work. But I feel like the story is constructed to accommodate a handful of clever twists rather than other way around.
Woody Allen probably influenced my sense of humor more than any other human being on earth so I'm sure there's probably sort of Oedipal element to my contempt for his recent output. Nobody fails us quite as devastatingly as our former heroes. As far as I'm concerned Allen has made exactly one wholly satisfying movie since 1992's Husbands and Wives, which I consider to be his last masterpiece. That'd be Sweet & Lowdown. When I look at movies like Celebrity, Deconstructing Harry and Anything Else all I see is a bitter old man seemingly kept alive solely by bile and contempt for women. It's gotten to the point where I'm actually relieved when an Allen movie is merely genially mediocre (see Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Hollywood Ending or rather don't) rather than full-on loathsome.
NM: Well, here's where we test the bounds of auteurism, I guess. A lot of those '90s Allen films I like probably qualify as "loathsome," and it's their loathsomeness that makes them interesting to me. For a while, it was like every year Allen took a fresh look at his own hang-ups, through the prism of the musical, the mystery, the mob comedy, the social realist drama, the documentary, etc. And then in the '00s it's all been variations on the same wan–even dumb–comedy. The little bit of commercial success Allen had with Small Time Crooks seems to have spurred him to play to the broadest audience possible. But he doesn't have the chops for populism, and from what I've read, his recent work has been lazy, uninspired, and indistinct. (And overlong. It used to be that Allen's films were reliably fleet, clocking in at under 90 minutes routinely, but lately it's been 1:45 or greater each time out. Match Point is a two-hour movie that could've easily been dispatched in 80 minutes.)
Match Point starts off as another one of those muddles, but what's exciting about the murderous twist it takes is that it allows Allen to almost accidentally stumble into a subject he cares about: guilt. The tension of both the murder plan and the aftermath has very little to do with the movie's ham-handed commentary on "luck" or about who the characters are or even what they're up to. It's all about raw panic, from the moment Rhys-Meyers sneaks into his father-in-law's gun cabinet, right through to the moments where he's trying to carry on a casual conversation with his wife while fiddling with the shotgun shells in his pocket.
I daresay there's as much intense feeling in the back half of Match Point as there's been in any Allen film since some of those squeamish '90s pictures. And that's not just damning with faint praise: there's as much intense feeling in those scenes as just about any I can recall in all of 2005.
Allen then almost squanders his momentum by carrying the movie on past its recurrent image of [MORE SPOILERS COMING] a tennis ball hitting the net and falling on the striker's side. (Though it's a ring and a guardrail the second time.) Really, Match Point could've ended with the shot of Rhys-Meyers failing to properly dispose of the last bit of evidence, and the audience left to figure out what happens next. Except that Allen twists the plot again, and lets Rhys-Meyers off the hook maybe. What keeps Match Point from being overly blunt in its meditation on luck is the final twist, which leaves open whether getting everything you want is really all it's cracked to be. (It's a kind of modification on Crimes & Misdemeanors' grimly amoral finality.)
But again, I'm less impressed with the undergraduate musings than I am with the sweaty-palms "My God, what have I done" fugue-state that Match Point enters. One of the reasons auteurism endures is because it's evident that some directors have a special feel for the material they work with, and some not so much. The feelings of guilt, shame and queasy inevitability in Match Point obviously have a special resonance for Allen, and he shoots those scenes with an almost giddy focus on how the hero–how everyone–carries their guilt around with them, even in crowded rooms.
NR: It sounds like you come to Woody Allen's movies with a whole lot less baggage than I do, which is undoubtedly both healthy and positive. It's funny how movies you don't like sometimes leave much more of an imprint in your psyche than movies you love. I thought Elizabethtown was an unqualified disaster, a 16-car pile-up of an auteuristic wreck and yet I couldn't stop thinking or talking about it. Similarly, I despised Anything Else's airless, claustrophobic misanthropy but it's nevertheless burned indelibly into my memory.
I concur with you that Match Point could have been easily dispatched in 80 minutes since I found myself comparing it very unfavorably to a movie from early last year which explores similar thematic terrain in exactly 80 minutes: Separate Lies. Like Match Point Julian Felllowe's film is a class-conscious drama that veers into thriller territory but I found myself responding to it emotionally because I believed in its characters, all of whom have a lived-in quality absent from Allen's upper-class stiffs. Watching the film I felt like Fellowes innately knew and understood these people, that he grew up with them and went to school with them, that he could be them himself. Whereas with Allen I felt like they were people Allen had seen a lot of movies about and may have once bumped into at a cocktail party.
I concede that as an aesthetic exercise Match Point is skillful but without any kind of emotional investment that's all it was to me: an empty aesthetic exercise. For me Match Point is wholly lacking in feeling: it aspires to the sweaty existential dread of Hitchcock or classic film noir but it's too removed, too distant, too damn classy to achieve it. And the scene with the accusing ghosts and the reverent quoting of philosophy positively reek of self-parody. Match Point is certainly a step forward for Allen but I still find it fundamentally unsatisfying.