Does success or failure in life spring from hard work, great skill and moral choices? Or does luck play the largest role in determining who wins and loses? That's the question writer/director Woody Allen volleys with in Match Point.
London country club tennis pro Chris Wilton explains his earnest view that simple chance rules our existence. "People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck," he says in an opening voiceover. "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."
Born in Ireland to a difficult life, Chris is eager to experience the finer things. He develops a taste for opera and studies literature on the side. Luckily, he is befriended by Tom Hewett, the heir of an über-wealthy upper-class London family. Soon, Tom's sister, Chloe, takes an interest in Chris. And it's not long before she lands him an upwardly mobile job in one of her father's companies. Marriage follows, and Chris has apparently lucked into the lifestyle of his dreams, including weekends at the family's enormous country estate, a personal driver and shopping at the best stores in London.
The sole obstacle to Chris' luxurious existence is his destructive obsession with Nola Rice, a seductive and neurotic American actress initially engaged to Tom. Chris begins an affair with her that continues after her engagement to Tom is broken and after his marriage to Chloe is well established. For a time, he juggles his myopic lust for Nola with his insatiable greed for a life of privilege. Eventually, the other woman forces him into a terrible choice. His action will prove the ultimate test of his philosophy that fate is absolute over any supposed meaning in life.
It's difficult to identify any positive elements in this film. All of the characters appear to be motivated solely by self-interest. Even the sweet-natured Chloe practically buys Chris with her father's money, seemingly unconcerned with his true feelings for her. However, the movie's utter obliviousness to positivity and morality may prompt thoughts in the minds of moviegoers about the nature of luck, morality and God's direction in our lives. (More on that in the "Conclusion.")
Chris is said to have been raised by an austere, religious father who found Jesus after losing both of his legs. Tom says sarcastically that "it hardly seems a fair trade." Chris obviously does not share his father's faith, insisting that all of existence is ruled by blind chance. Tom quotes his vicar as saying that "despair is the path of least resistance." Chris disagrees.
A character guilty of a heinous crime admits that it would be fitting for him to be caught and punished, that he would welcome it as a sign that there is at least some meaning in life beyond mere chance. Apparently, his not getting caught somehow provides evidence against the existence of an involved God or a moral structure to the universe.
Although Match Point contains no outright nudity, at least half-a-dozen sexual encounters are witnessed. Covered by sheets, Chris and Chloe are seen having sex (with movement and sounds). Chris catches Tom and Nola making out at a party; her bare leg is glimpsed around Tom, and he appears to have her underwear in his hands. Chris and Nola frantically clutch at and disrobe each other numerous times, including scenes of her in small underwear, the couple under sheets, and brief glimpses of him ripping her clothes off, her blindfolding him, them sharing a candlelit massage, them in a field in the rain, etc. Additionally, Chris is seen in nonsexual situations in his underwear and wearing just a towel. We hear sexual dialogue between Chloe and Chris related to their attempts to get pregnant.
No blood or gore. But one character murders others in cold blood with a shotgun. The camera never reveals the victims, aside from one corpse's hand.
Crude or Profane Language
The names God, Jesus and Christ are abused around 25 times total. The British swear words "bloody" and "s-dding" are heard several times, as are a few milder profanities.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Nola smokes constantly, and Tom smokes quite a bit. All of the characters drink often, but Nola, especially, seems to have a problem with alcohol. She regularly gets drunk, following in the footsteps of her mother, also an alcoholic. Tom's mother appears to be tipsy on a few occasions.
Other Negative Elements
A woman who becomes pregnant is urged repeatedly to get an abortion. She responds that she won't do so a third time.
Match Point has been widely hailed as the 70-year-old Woody Allen's return to cinematic glory after years of churning out sub-par box-office bombs. (Have you ever even heard of Melinda and Melinda, Hollywood Ending or Anything Else?). And in spite of some early awkwardness, the film does indeed become a taut, thought-provoking and well-crafted drama. Specifically, the story's last act provides several twists and turns that thoroughly satisfy both the climax and Allen's central theme of luck's supremacy over providence.
Several critics have suggested this film might be the director's best since Crimes and Misdemeanors. The comparisons to that engaging film are hard to miss. But Match Point delves into darker territory. In it, Allen appears to be contesting the conclusions Fyodor Dostoyevsky came to in his writing of the book from which Allen's 1989 film draws its title and theme.
Early in Match Point, Chris is seen reading the book either in an attempt to better fit with his upper-class friends or out of sympathy for the novel's protagonist. In that story, a man who commits a terrible double murder suffers under the weight of his crime in spite of apparently getting away with it. Eventually, he confesses, turns himself in and finds redemption both in Christ and in the love of a forgiving woman.
Allen's modern take finds the criminal unable to accept either the reality of sin or of a God who would hold anyone accountable for such things. Although the killer would welcome being proved wrong, he chooses to see the lack of justice for his crime as evidence that luck rules all. Without justice, there can be no meaning to life.
And if justice, reward and punishment were measured only by the circumstances of one's life on earth, I might be inclined to agree with the film's perspective. With the biblical writer Jeremiah we've all wondered, "Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do the faithless live at ease?" For those of us who have placed our faith in a personal God, the only satisfying answer is found in the knowledge that human reward and suffering are weighed out on an eternal scale, not a temporal one. The wicked will not prosper beyond the days of this brief life. But the God of love offers eternal reward to those who accept His forgiveness by embracing the sinless Messiah's payment for their sin. God's justice is absolute, even if infidelity and murder go unpunished for a short time.
For those who can't (or won't) step over that line of faith, who can't (or won't) invest in the reality of the immaterial world, Allen's conclusion is the most logical alternative. In fact, it's downright brave. Take your best shot and accept the hand fate deals you. It's a tragically flawed and shortsighted view, but the only truly honest one on the menu for those without conviction of a life beyond death. I agree with Allen that there's no middle ground, no reason to hope that human goodness alone offers any real meaning in a world without God. Goodness without God is empty and powerless. Goodness from God is eternal and redemptive.
A turning point for Dostoyevsky's self-tortured criminal springs from the New Testament story of Lazarus being raised from the dead by Jesus. If there is indeed a resurrection from the dead, he must come to different conclusions about his crime. And so must we all. No matter that Woody Allen's Match Point does not.