“What I am is sexy.” When aspiring actor Nola (Scarlett Johansson) makes this observation over drinks with Chris (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), he’s briefly taken aback. After all, he’s just told her she’s beautiful, and she didn’t bite. And then he gets it (or so he thinks): “So,” Chris says, “You are aware of your effect on men.”
She is so aware, of course, because she’s a woman in a Woody Allen movie. This one, Match Point, is set in London rather than New York, and its murder plot unfolds more slowly than those in his comedies, but its thematic focus is unmistakable. Chris, the emblematic (or is that symptomatic?) male, is bewildered by women, in particular by the vivacious, sensuous, and initially radiant Nola. This even as he’s engaged to be married to Chloe Wilton (Emily Mortimer), a bossy if occasionally sweet heiress, and Nola is dating Chloe’s brother Tom (Matthew Goode).
If the siblings are blandly self-absorbed and pleasantly ignorant, owing to their old money, the outsiders want in. While Nola’s an American seeking legitimacy (or something) in England, Chris is an Irish tennis pro whose voiceover meditation on luck opens the film: as a tennis ball bops back and forth over a net in slow motion, he notes that it might go either way: “With a little bit of luck, it goes forward and you win, or it doesn’t and you lose.” With that, you learn that he’s given up the pro tour in order to work at a club. It’s not exactly what he planned, but it’s a way to stay in London and hobnob with hoity-toity types.
Chris and Nola meet after they’ve both established footholds in this wifty wealthy world: she challenges him to table tennis and he puts her down with a single return. “What have I walked into”?” they ask one another, eyes wide and appraising. Understanding their limits as other-people’s-afficanceds, they bond over their similarly unhappy childhoods and imagine money will make their lives better. If it’s old British money, accompanied by country estates and evenings at the opera, so much the better. This desire for a shift in class, of course, puts a damper on their own relationship, but the heart wants what the heart wants, and Chris devises ways to have his cake and eat it too.
This plot makes him resemble any number of famous social climbers, Tom Ripley and Clyde Griffiths (An American Tragedy) among them. Chris’ ostensibly shallow pondering of his options is rendered in warm-toned close-ups. Though his face grows harder, less plainly interested in the people he’s manipulating, his self-concern becomes visible: in brief, gaping-mouthed moments, in a pallor that won’t quit. Chloe’s father Alec (Brian Cox) takes a liking to Chris, affirming, “He’s not trivial. We had a very interesting conversation about Dostoevsky.” (Chris also nurtures a fondness for Enrico Caruso, whose voice, he tells Chloe, “expresses everything that’s tragic about life,” one of these Allenish aphorisms that’s probably true but just sounds trite.)
At the same time, Chloe’s mother, Eleanor (Penelope Wilton), conveniently and blatantly disparages Nola, whose acting career never takes off, owing to her lack of confidence (at least this is her story; her failed auditions occur off screen). Mummy’s disapproval (“Especially for a woman, it’s a particularly cruel business,” she sniffs about the acting, “I’m a great one for facing up to realities”) underlies Tom’s own evolving diffidence; he’s a good upper-crusty boy, despite his pretended rebelliousness.
Eventually, Tom’s lack of spine leaves Nola bitter enough to take up with Chris, who pursues her with something resembling passion, though it’s hard to tell quite what he wants. Their romance begins with a lively, rain-soaked tryst in a field near the Wiltons’ country estate, where both Nola and Chris’ shirts cling prettily, if briefly, to their perfect torsos. But within days, Nola makes it clear that her interest was superficial, and her rejection (declared most loudly during a performance of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical The Woman in White, some weird punctuation) leads more or less directly to Chris’ decisions to commit to a career with Alec’s company and fancy church wedding with Chloe.
Chris’ slide into this standard soul-sucking vortex is not especially affecting. His grasping is immature and unconvincing (though Rhys-Meyers is fine in the role), eventually annoying. It’s also predictable from frame one, so the film is not so much tracing a character development as it is going through the motions of a cliché. During one moment of extreme crisis, he cries, briefly, then persists with his badly conceived, wholly dependent-on-luck plan.
To be fair, Chris’ thudding caddishness, so perfunctory and lacking in conscience or compassion, makes his appeal to Chloe, who otherwise seems self-confident to a fault, seem a bit strange. Perhaps she can’t imagine anyone would be so callous. Or maybe, as the film lays on thickly, she’s preoccupied with having a baby, that recurrent bane of Allen’s women. Chris’ resentment of her presumption and privilege is made visible in scenes that showcase her wealth and his passivity, as when they walk through the fabulous South Bank loft she has selected: stepping onto the ledge of floor-to-ceiling windows that look out on the Thames, Chris shudders, noting his fear of heights. Ah, smiles Chloe, it’s something he’ll have to get over.
Once Tom marries a new girl (pregnant as soon as he mentions her), Nola and Chris’ relationship becomes more urgent: they meet in her teensy Shepherd’s Bush flat, where Chris feels large: the camera pans the space to show its clutter, he rips at her blouse. They make dates in breathless bits of conversation on their mobiles, their desire couched in terms at once sophisticated and dishonest, thrilling and juvenile. Chris is right where he wants to be, and he’s feeling claustrophobic: his office space, his opera box, his home, even his planned Greek islands vacation are all functions of his wife’s money and history. Because he’s the indecisive, unhappy, inarticulate protagonist in a Woody Allen movie, you can pretty much guess what happens next.
Beset by insatiable yearnings, Chris can’t be honest or loyal. His frustration is framed by the women around him, all nattering on about babies: Tom and his wife talk about their infant, Eleanor presses for more grandchildren, Chloe’s taking her temperature each morning, and the increasingly needy Nola brings yet another sort of pressure to bear. Though Chris begins by asserting his faith in luck (or at least his assertion that he’d rather be lucky than good), he ends up adrift and haunted, without any “measure of hope for the possibility of meaning.” Maybe it’s just luck that the women around him — irrational, demanding, and voluble — come to represent that lack.