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Sunday
Aug242014

Match Point

I have been to England on numerous occasions (my father studied there for many years) and even at a young age was able to discern the double-decker busloads of beautiful women, above all in London. London casts a particular spell over Americans as an old city of near unprecedented culture, but also because it does not take largesse of mind to buy into the whole jingbang. It is foreign although not in language or custom; it often sides with American policies and programs; and with the robust postwar change in demographics its multiethnicity will remind many a Yankee of home. Yet what keeps luring Americans over the pond is not only the relative ease of integration, but also a societal framework that maintains what can be rudely called a caste system and what is more properly termed cleanly leveled strata. You may be the shallowest, most fatuous, and most bigoted of the people in your neighborhood, and at the same time be the richest, most influential, and most respected – such are the privileges of nobility, something that United States law has always proscribed. And you may embody these characteristics just as thoroughly as your father and grandfather, and often precisely for that reason will you save face. The Johnny-come-latelies of the world, the self-made men and women who propel capitalism to its acme (and then, more often than not, precipitate its fire-winged demise) – these are not as readily accepted in Merrie Olde England or its modern successor. The British already have their upper class and there is, as the uppermost say, only so much room at the top. And while they have money and property, and often some meaningless title that appeals to a certain type of Philistine hero worship, they might have little else. No brains, no looks, no iota of culture, and worst of all, no decency. They wander through the halls of their ancient manors and feel redeemed because despite their obvious shortcomings they deserve all this; they tend to marry their peers because their peers understand them and wallow in their own justificatory fancies. Occasionally, however, outsiders approach the fold who fascinate these old bleaters, and there invariably ensues an insufferable discussion on what a man or woman of such status should do in this kind of situation (usually, find another bleater). Most of them rightly (and quite ironically) point out that the only things going for them are their money and prestige, which do tend to attract a large number of wolves. Two such beasts converge upon the foolish fold in this subtle and enticing film.

Our first lupine is Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), an erstwhile tennis pro who now earns a living teaching some bleaters a spot of racket. Wilton is also of humble origin and, like Rhys Meyers, Irish, a profile that the film not so much broaches as allows to serve as the explanation for his resentment towards his patrons. We are not given much of a chance to see Wilton at work before he gives Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode) a few pointers. Tom comes from a very wealthy family and has little to show for it apart from a decent face and good height; otherwise he is hardly distinguishable from a lamp post or praying mantis. After the lesson, they drink, smoke, and chat, and when the bill arrives, Wilton initially insists on paying. He will return again and again to emphasize that he does not need anyone's charity, and there are only two kinds of people obsessed with conveying such an impression: the very proud and those desperately seeking charity. The trouble with such parasitism is that its price often means doing something in exchange – like marrying Tom's sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer). Tom takes Chris to the opera to make his family's acquaintance and Chloe, an impulsive, annoying, and rather stupid young woman, decides that Chris meets her collection standards and asks off-screen that her father (Brian Cox) find him some gainful employment.

The Hewetts, we immediately suspect, are the type of wealthy people who think culture can be bought, and our suspicions are well-founded. They keep up appearances with a huge and dusty library (used only for heavy boozing and family spats), a spate of opera tickets (although they consider the musical adaptation of this nineteenth-century thriller a brilliant opus), and endless greed and snobbery. The impecunious Wilton is amenable to such a setup, although his beleaguered look informs us that he understands he is not really working for Hewett as much as promising never to leave his daughter. Yet just as this new life is about to take shape, he encounters a voluptuous if equally asinine female in Tom's American fiancée Nola Rice (Scarlet Johansson). What is fascinating about Nola is exactly what occurs: whatever you may think of Johansson's attractiveness – she is far more nubile than beautiful in any way – it is hard to see the allure on the part of two men who have a broad range of dating opportunities. As she says herself: "men tend to believe that I may be something special," which is one of the most accurate and trenchant descriptions of human impulsiveness. Nola cannot hold a conversation without either drinking, smoking, lamenting her hard luck as an aspiring actress, or mentioning the long parade of alcoholics and substance abusers in her family. To his credit, Tom grows weary of this routine and dumps Nola after about a year (we first meet them at their relationship's halfway mark), at which point she vanishes only to reappear to a married but bored Chris in this museum as if she herself were a work of art. Thereupon they begin a torrid affair that had one wet and wild antecedent in a rainy field while Tom was still tolerant of Nola's schemes. 

Nola's schemes? Isn't she nothing more than a harmless young actress from Boulder, Colorado? No confirmation is ever supplied because of the dénouement of a series of decisions by the characters, yet Nola has as much to lose as Chris does from her separation from the Hewetts and, more importantly, the endless source of Hewett funds. The twists and turns in Match Point, as well as the marvelous operatic soundtrack, turn out to be far more riveting than the explicitly stated motifs – chance, sport and gamesmanship, opportunity, ruthlessness – which is what usually happens when a fine work of art develops. Having opera as the background, almost as the music in Wilton's mind and what little is left of his soul, underscores the tragic elements and, indeed, about a third of the way through the film loses its last attempts to be funny or wry. This is a tragedy, pure and simple, and tragedy informs every one of the seemingly peripheral actions: from Wilton's learning the guns of his father-in-law, to his talking about a mouse and peanut butter, to his chats with a former tennis colleague as if the latter were his conscience, to the police detective's strong Scottish accent as he constantly interrupts the tall handsome neighbor who has a chance to thwart a crime. Peanut butter, we note, is a typically American snack and Nola does resemble a mouse at times, a mouse with a wolf-like appetite out for some of the finest cheese it could possibly find. So if, to our hedonistic ears, the film's title sounds more like a dating service than a tennis term, this would explain why no one in the film seems to listen to anyone else. And in this London that contains so much beauty and so many opportunities for both the sheep and the wolf, they're all a perfect match for one another.

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