Montreal, April 2, 2006 • No 173




Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness.




SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't seen the movie Match Point, be warned that numerous major and minor plot details are revealed below.


by Bradley Doucet


          Despite all of my profound criticisms of Woody Allen's latest film, Match Point, I can at least say that I was not bored while watching it. The acting, writing, and directing were sufficiently good to hold my attention throughout, which is certainly the minimum that a film should do. More importantly, Match Point elicited a number of interesting discussions with friends, and I subsequently felt compelled to organize my thoughts on the matter in the form of this written review. Unfortunately, all of my thoughts have been about the dangerously wrongheaded ideas developed in this film. It is a hopelessly cynical caricature of human aspirations and relationships, and its unrealistic portrayal of chance as the major factor in human affairs leads inevitably to a complete abdication of personal responsibility.


Pulling Himself Up by His Bootstraps?

          Superficially, Match Point is in part a story about a poor-boy-done-good, a man who climbs his way out of poverty into a life of material comfort and security through hard work and the forging of valuable connections. While this may sound like an inspiring premise, the story's protagonist, Chris (played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), is anything but inspiring. Chris essentially fakes, cheats, lies, steals, and murders his way into a life of wealth… and gets away with it. He is a singularly unsympathetic character, but he does not get his comeuppance in the end.

          None of the other characters is particularly admirable either (which is one of the reasons Chris does get away with his crimes and deceptions, as noted below). In a comedy, of course, all bets are off, but this is not a comedy; it's a drama, and for a drama to be truly engaging, it should have at least one or two characters the audience can admire. The good guys don't have to win, if the forces they are up against are too great, for instance, and the whole work is intended as a cautionary tale. But this film is also clearly not a cautionary tale, and there are no real good guys to speak of. With no one at all to look up to, I was left wondering why I had spent two hours of my life with these people.

Following His Heart?

          Several years ago, to much controversy, Woody Allen left his then-wife for another woman: his then-wife's adopted daughter, and hence someone for whom he presumably had played a father-like role. It was a disconcerting development, but one could at least imagine that theirs was an unconventional love, and that Allen had braved the predictable controversy that arose in order to follow his heart.

          Some of the people I talked to imagined that Match Point told a similar tale, culled from the experience Allen himself had lived. Had this been the case, it might have been a story worth watching, but the protagonist in this film most decidedly does not follow his heart. Sure, Chris has an affair, with Nola (played by Scarlett Johansson), but in the end, it turns out he's really just been following his lust. When he finds out she's pregnant with his child, not only is he able to leave her, he is able to kill her (and an innocent bystander) in cold blood in order to follow his greed.

          In fact, Chris is unsympathetic precisely because he never follows his heart. His only clear, consistent desire is for material gain. There's nothing inherently wrong with wanting material gain, but to secure it Chris works at a job he hates, marries a woman who leaves him cold, attends operas he does not seem to enjoy, discusses books he has not read – and murders two people. He is not happy at the start of the film, nor at the height of his admittedly passionate extra-marital affair, nor at the end of the film with his secret crimes undiscovered. From the perspective of pursuing happiness, he makes bad choice after bad choice. He has achieved his initial goal, but pursuing material gain at the expense of everything else has not made him happy, and we do not even get a sense that he has realized his error.

"The recurring theme of this film is the supreme importance of chance in human affairs, which the characters actually discuss on several occasions, in typical Woody Allen fashion. The visual metaphor of a tennis ball hitting a net and bouncing straight up is used to great effect..."

          Is this, then, his comeuppance? Will he be miserable for what he's done, live with guilt eating away at his insides? Not exactly. He is miserable, but he was miserable to begin with, and in a scene near the end of the film in which he is haunted by his victims, he shows little remorse. Even if he were to feel bad, he deserves to rot in jail for his double homicide, so the occasional pang of conscience is not quite punishment enough.

The Role of Chance in Human Affairs

          The recurring theme of this film is the supreme importance of chance in human affairs, which the characters actually discuss on several occasions, in typical Woody Allen fashion. The visual metaphor of a tennis ball hitting a net and bouncing straight up is used to great effect: sometimes you get lucky and it lands on the other side of the net, but sometimes your luck runs out and it lands on your side of the net. Within the context of this plot, sometimes you get away with murder, not to mention adultery, but sometimes you end up staring at your fellow adulterer down the barrel of a shotgun. It all depends upon your luck.

          Except that the real world doesn't work that way. In the real world, luck has a way of evening out, and people tend to get what they deserve. This is why a tennis match is very rarely decided on a lucky bounce, to say nothing of a whole tournament or an entire career. In this film, though, we see Chris get dozens of lucky breaks (and by implication, he gets hundreds more) as he somehow successfully hides his ongoing affair, and then his murders, from everyone. We keep thinking (and hoping) that he's going to get what's coming to him, but he never does. This stretches the limits of credibility as far as the most contrived action flick.

          We're supposed to believe that Chris's father-in-law, who runs a successful company, does not know how to read people well enough to know that he's being played? That his mother-in-law is unrelentingly suspicious of her other child's love interest but gives him a free pass? That his neglected wife does not suspect for more than a fleeting instant that he's cheating on her? That his co-workers and managers do not question his frequent and poorly explained absences from the office? That Nola's co-worker, who knows that she was heading to meet her lover the day she was murdered, can't connect the dots? That no one catches Chris sneaking off with a rifle from his adopted family's collection, or putting it back, or clumsily hiding the jewelry he stole to make his murders look like a robbery gone bad? In the real world, some people do quite literally get away with murder – indeed, some world leaders have gotten away with murdering millions – but this guy would have been caught several times over.

Triple Break Point

          In the end, we are left with a story that is morally bankrupt. It is not merely that Chris is not held responsible for his destructive actions. If chance is the main determinant in human affairs, then neither is he responsible for his successes – and neither is anyone else. According to this notion, it is a matter of luck whether or not someone gets caught for his crimes, whether someone succeeds or fails in life, and even whether or not someone gets trapped in a situation in which one feels compelled to commit adultery or murder. The more one accepts that chance plays a major role in life, the more one relinquishes personal responsibility for how one's life turns out. This may allow us to pretend we are blameless, but only at the cost of devaluing our actual achievements.

          The nihilistic notion that chance is the main factor in life is both insulting and dangerous. It discredits and discourages active engagement in the pursuit of one's goals, while excusing and encouraging passive resignation to the vicissitudes of life. Short of being born in some authoritarian hell – in which the average person really does have little control over his own fortunes – the most important determining factor in a person's life is not chance. The most important factor is character: the kind of person I am and the kinds of choices I make with whatever life throws at me, good or bad.

          Match Point is not completely without value, because it addresses an interesting theme, and can engender some interesting discussions. The film ultimately fails, however, first by neglecting to offer us any sympathetic characters, and second by inflating the role of chance beyond any realistic proportions. With regards to this larger issue, Allen simply comes down on the wrong side of the net.