“That lot over there in Santa Monica”
Of which, I suppose, I’m now one, but Peter Preston’s funny and perceptive piece in the Guardian about the transatlantic miscommunication inherent in Match Point gets my vote, at least for the first half of the film — which is really the whole of his thesis.
Up to somewhere around its mid-point, Match Point is something like Gormenghast rewritten for a nouveau-riche upper-middle class castle intruded upon by a Steerpike who wishes not to bring the whole thing crashing down, but to assimilate himself seamlessly. It’s all about — or seeks to be all about — class and mobility. It might be just coincidence, but Jonathan Rhys-Meyers links the two, having been an appropriately self-obsessed Steerpike for the BBC. Woody Allen’s tin ear for the relevant location and stratum, which Preston identifies — his gag being that it would easily be fixed with the indirection of subtitling — struck me too. Though maybe Allen couldn’t have won with me anyhow, since the authentically detatched, louche, wastrel lives of his rich and unfamous characters fill me with an easy loathing. The voices of public-schooled elocution — not Allen’s doing but the more-than-competent actors’ — raise the tiny hairs on the back of my neck.
But then suddenly, unaccountably, things get much better, as the narrative zeroes in on our two outsiders: Meyers as the underclass chancer, and Scarlett Johansson as the extraclass vamp, both of them showing the scaffolding of insecurity underneath. The Nigels and Emmas are shunted off into the wings, and the film turns into something much more interesting: a kind of neo-retro-noir. Tone down a couple of the sex scenes (and not all that much), and the entire screenplay could have been shot by Hitchcock fifty or sixty years ago. There are moments of suspense towards the end which he’d have been very happy with. The film ends with something that’s so Hitchcockian I can’t believe it wasn’t a conscious bit of homage: suddenly the narrative point-of-view switches to that of a couple of plods. Hitch used the grabbing of the frame by authority figures — typically brand-new characters — towards a film’s end all the time: Chief Inspector Oxford (and wife) in Frenzy; Leo G. Carroll’s ill-defined government man in North by Northwest; the explains-it-all psychiatrist in the coda to Psycho. It ought to be death to a well-constructed screenplay, but Hitchcock made it work — just about — and it works here too. Suddenly our alliances are torn between the likeable detectives and the hideously distorted character we’ve seen kill for self-preservation, and there’s nothing much we can do about it.
As for Woody’s own thesis, well, it strikes me somewhat like an assigned essay which begins with the required theme and wraps up with a reiteration of the theme — as if it can become about the theme by merely bookending things — whereas the middle wanders vaguely in manner of its own choosing. A lot falls on the opening bit of voice-over by Meyers’s character, and when, within the narrative, we assume this is ‘spoken’. We read it as a tenet of faith: that success follows from being lucky rather than from being good. Then, what we’re shown for the majority of the film is a man quite ruthlessly and amorally taking what he can, as soon as he can. We must believe either that he falls for Johansson literally at first sight and is unable to resist, or that he perceives opportunity and sees no reason to resist. Either way, it’s Meyers as the Machiavellian Steerpike which dominates. This is clearly a man who — whatever he might believe about himself or the world — clearly makes his own luck. The rest of the film follows inexorably from that moment.
When things begin to fall apart later, and his ever more grandiose scheming must slug it out with ever more grandiose slices of fortune, the tide does shift, and it’s here that the film gets most compelling. The wonderful visual gag towards the end — which itself contains a very deft bluff — is the moment at which luck has taken over completely. But the question that’s left is where the journey began. Is the film a document of Meyers’s character’s transformation from controlling, Machiavellian Steerpike, to a chastened rider of waves of luck, having been burned by the fire this time but escaped at the very last moment? Or is the cycle we’ve witnessed something that has repeated throughout his life, and which informed the reckless and amoral behaviour we see from the start of the film? If we read the opening voice-over as occurring at the end of the narrative (but the beginning of the film), a kind of resigned recognition of the moral of the story, which is then told in a very subtle flashback, then the second of these readings isn’t available: the character has genuinely developed. If we read the opening voice-over as occurring at the beginning of the narrative (and not just the opening of the film), then the first of these isn’t available: he’s always been a chancer who relies on chance and (perhaps) believes it will serve him well. This second reading is belied by how psychologically broken the climax of the narrative does appear to leave him: he might be pathologically greedy and ambitious, but he’s not without guilt.
Either way, the largest problem with the screenplay is exposed: Meyers’s character appears from nowhere, like a force of nature. This is fine — actually works quite well — if he’s merely thinly psychotic; except he isn’t. The story asks for the weight of character without wishing to delve into back-story which might illuminate it. Some small fragments would be entirely enough. It’s curious that not even those are provided or hinted at, curious enough that it must be deliberate. What we’re left with is the unsettling hole of a character who is framed with a conspicuously bogeyman-ish mystery, but who is more human than we might like to admit.