There's an image at the start of Woody Allen's well-received 2005 film Match Point that attempts to position tennis as a metaphor for all of life. When you slam a tennis ball into the top of the net at a critical juncture in a game, will you get lucky and watch the ball bounce over, out of your opponent's reach? Or will you stare in horror as it falls back into your court, costing you game, set, match, perhaps tournament? What if everything in life came down to moments of luck like that . . . would there be any need for hard work or ethics?
The conclusion by the protagonist of Match Point seems to be "No." Thus, despite the fact that the film plays like a love letter to London by an American, where the city is celebrated with the same joy that Allen once showed off New York, this is one of the darkest films in recent memory. While Match Point has its good points -- excellent performances, and those gorgeous shots of London -- I thought the movie was a lot better the first time he made it, when it was set in New York and titled Crimes and Misdemeanors. The storyline is the same: Man marries wealthy, attractive, sophisticated woman devoted to creating a family with him, only to discover that he's really attracted to the lower-class, sexually irresistible, emotionally needy woman he isn't supposed to want. When there's a possibility of his wife finding out and his wonderful lifestyle being destroyed, he must make a choice, and the choice he makes in both films is to take the horrific, cynical route which superficially frees him, yet illuminates the emptiness of his life and his values.
The difference is that Crimes and Misdemeanors is not only Allen's best film but the best film of its decade and possibly its quarter century. It isn't that Match Point is a terrible movie by comparison; the pacing's a little slow but the central drama is compelling, and I suppose that if I'd never seen Crimes, I might have thought Match Point was quite good. But comparisons are impossible to avoid. Both films center on male protagonists who grew up poor, became rich, married British women befitting the station to which they wished to rise in life, cheated on those women with working-class women, and then -- Spoiler Warning! -- murdered their mistresses when the mistresses threatened to damage their wealth and position.
Some of the scenes are nearly identical in both films. There's one in Match Point, for instance, in which Nola (Scarlett Johansson) shrieks that she wants to speak to the wife of Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers); it's a near word-for-word match for the scene in which Dolores (Anjelica Huston) shrieks that she wants to speak to the wife of Judah (Martin Landau) in Crimes and Misdemeanors. The latter is set indoors while the former is set on a street in London, making the crisis of Match Point seem more grand and public, plus this time the girlfriend character is pregnant, and given her connections to Chris' family she is in a stronger position to credibly threaten him. But because Chris feels more threatened, he also takes more extreme action. Whereas Judah asks his brother to arrange a hit on Dolores, keeping himself distanced from the idea that he is committing murder until he sees Dolores' corpse, Chris commits the crime himself and kills another woman just to strengthen the impression that the motive for the attack was robbery.
Yet making the crisis bigger doesn't make it better because we never get a clue why Chris has absolutely no moral center. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen doesn't only make sense of Judah's moral decay, he makes it a point of emotional identification for the viewer. Judah's affair is a symptom of deep malaise, not the cause of it; he grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust, and he can't bring himself to believe in a God who cares about the suffering of humans. This subject surfaces as a theme again and again in the film's subplots. One character is making a movie about a philosopher trying to make sense of life and faith in the wake of genocide. Another insists that the Europeans "got away with" killing six million Jews because they've never been held accountable. Is morality possible in a world where the Holocaust happened? The philosopher, who teaches the importance of an ethical, life-affirming attitude in the face of the atrocities he survived, ends up ducking the question, for he commits suicide. Meanwhile Judah is an opthalmologist -- a profession he says he chose because his father told him that the eyes of God see all -- but his rabbi is going blind from glaucoma and it becomes increasingly apparent to Judah not only that God isn't looking, He isn't even there.
The character of the filmmaker, who is played by Allen himself, insists that in a world without divine judgment, people have to take the responsibility for morality themselves. A murderer should turn himself in if he gets away with it because it's the only way to give meaning to life. But Judah insists that only happens in the movies, and in the end, instead of letting the weight of his actions crush him, he goes off to dance with his wife. The power of the film comes in large part from the fact that Judah remains human and sympathetic even while he's having his lover killed. As a viewer, even while I was hating Allen the writer-director for the disposable woman syndrome where a man has an epiphany over the dead body of a love interest, I was in awe of the way he'd made me understand what a terribly sad person Judah was . . . a man still reflecting the damage of what happened to his people decades before and across the ocean. I don't think anyone has ever made a better movie about trying (and failing) to live a meaningful life in a post-Holocaust world.
Match Point, by contrast, is a story about a poor Irish brat who wants to be a rich English brat. We learn nothing of his origins -- if Chris was scarred by English imperialism in Ireland, by the Catholic-Protestant conflict, by nasty relatives, by abuse early in life, we never find out. Chris marries a sweet but very spoiled girl ("Daddy, I want a modern art gallery!") and lives all the benefits of sharing a life with her. He feels a lack of passion because he once had a hot roll in the hay -- literally, in a field -- with the very sexy, somewhat unfocused fiance of his brother-in-law, and they might even have been in love though it's hard to tell; it's really hard to see whether he's connecting with anything besides her sexiness and their common working class origins. There's no catalyzing event to explain why material success is so important to him that he'd sacrifice every other kind of happiness, including love.
Let's get real: a lot of us would like to live in a stunning penthouse apartment overlooking the Thames and work in an office in the Gherkin and go to the opera and on cruises and see West End musicals every weekend. But the idea that these things represent the consummate achievement in life is really sad, and how many of us would commit two brutal murders to move up in the world? Chris doesn't suffer much deep malaise over the thought, let alone the act, of murder. He cries a little and he has a single night of being haunted by ghosts (which are not as well done as the ghosts in previous Allen movies). But then he looks out at the Thames and thinks about the scratchy opera recordings he had to listen to before he married into money, and who wants to give that up just to have a soul?
It's absolutely repugnant. Really, everyone in the movie is repugnant. It's hard to feel much for Chris's oblivious princess wife who loves her life because she gets everything she wants and has cranky tantrums when she can't get pregnant on schedule. It's hard to feel much for Nola, the girlfriend who storms out rather than fighting back against snobs who put down her acting career and her person; she remains a beautiful, messed-up enigma right through to her death. And it's impossible to like Chris even before he becomes a murderer, because he is lucky -- in the right place at the right time, sucking up to people who take his adoration of their lifestyle to be all the validation they need. In the end it's not a tennis ball but a wedding ring teetering on a balcony that determines his fate, and it seems there's even less of a God in Match Point than in Crimes and Misdemeanors, because it amuses the universe to spare Chris in an irony that even the police agree would be too absurd to be believed.
What's the point -- that the rich and despicable can get away with murder? Thank you, but we've known that for centuries. The best thing about Crimes and Misdemeanors is that against all odds, it's very funny, pointing out that at least we get the pleasure of laughing at the rich and despicable; Alan Alda has the role of a lifetime in the latter as a selfish, snotty movie producer, and there's a dirty little subplot involving the sister of his character which suggests that it's impossible to have a love life without feeling like your lover is taking a dump on you. Match Point doesn't have that humor and the irony it provides, the things that make life tolerable in a cruel world. Luck's not going to be enough for Chris; nothing is.
Green Man Reviews