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Matchstick Men (2003) Print E-mail
Friday, 12 September 2003
Roy Waller (Nicolas Cage) refuses to describe himself as a con man; he's a con artist, he insists, adding that he doesn't take money from the targets of his cons, they give it to him. Not that he really buys this, at least unconsciously, for he's a mass of tics, blinks, twitches and suffers from a long list of obsessive-compulsive disorders: he can't open a door without twisting the knob three times (and he counts the times, usually in Spanish) and shutting it three times afterward. He's also agoraphobic and a chain smoker. He's compulsively neat; he lives in a standard ranch-style house somewhere in the San Fernando Valley, and keeps it spotlessly clean, particularly the carpets (no shoes! he insists). He fishes a leaf out of the swimming pool he never uses as soon as it hits the surface. All his cleaning supplies are neatly organized by category and volume. He generally eats only tuna right out of the can so there won't be dishes to clean.

However, though he operates on a relatively minor scale -- a few hundred here, a couple of thousand there -- he has been a great mentor to his younger partner Frank (Sam Rockwell). And whenever he launches into a con, often on the phone, all the tics, twitches and compulsions vanish for the time being.

He's been downing pills to help the obsessive-compulsive aspect of his nature, but his doctor has skipped town. On Frank's suggestion, he seeks out Dr. Klein (Bruce Altman), a psychiatrist working out of a small industrial park. Klein refuses to give Roy pills right away, and instead insists on actually doing a bit of therapy whenever Roy comes in (twisting the knob three times). Klein, a sympathetic type, seems to believe Roy's claim to be an antique dealer. Roy tells him that he was so upset that he spent a day doing nothing other than worrying about his carpet that he planned to blow his brains out, but then worried about what that would do to his carpet -- "and that was a GOOD day, doc," he adds. Klein gets him to reveal that he hasn't had a romantic relationship since his wife threw him out fifteen years before. Roy dejectedly adds that she won't take a call from him, so he doesn't even know if he has a child, though he suspects he does.

He convinces a reluctant Klein to phone his wife, and then on a bright and sunny day (with Roy inside his car with the windows rolled up), at a park he has a rendezvous with his 14-year-old daughter Angela (Alison Lohman). She's a bright, outgoing kid, teetering on the edge of womanhood, but who still carries a skateboard everywhere she goes. Rather to his surprise, Roy hits it off with her and they start to see each other frequently. But Roy does not want her to get into his area of work....
"Matchstick Men" (dumb title -- did YOU know that means "con men"?) begins as a cheerful, sunny comedy, then predictably (the film's only real weakness) shades into darker terrain. There are great performances by all concerned, particularly by Cage and Lohman. He's hilarious as the twitchy Roy, but still garners a lot of our sympathy because we, but not he, can easily tell that he's an unhappy, lonely man. Frank is his friend, to be sure, but theirs is primarily a working relationship -- Roy figures out the cons, Frank talks Frank into leaving the shelter of his house. They make a great team, and though their scores are not huge, they are consistent. Roy keeps over a million dollars, some of it in pound notes, in a safe deposit box, and a few thousand (and a gun) inside a dog statue in his living room.

When she learns that her father is a con artist, Angela becomes intensely excited: it's summer vacation, she's a bit bored, and now she finds that her never-before-met father has a very exciting job -- one she wants to experiment with herself. But Roy is very reluctant.

Both of the partners, Frank in particular, do dream of the one big take, the con that will net them not just a few thousand, but as many thousands as they can carry. And then Frank meets Chuck Frechette (Bruce McGill), a crude millionaire who's a bit dishonest, and willing to be a lot more dishonest if he can make a big score. In short, he's a sheep waiting to be fleeced. And maybe Angela can play a part in fleecing him.

Ridley Scott, uncharacteristically, directed this tightly-focused tale. Usually, he works on a much bigger scale, as with "Alien," "Gladiator" and "Black Hawk Down." But he also made "Thelma and Louise," and has a great eye for the American landscape. Furthermore, all of his films are largely devoted to characters, and many of them are laced with (or overflowing with) suspense. Granted, comedy has never turned up often in a Scott film before, but he's a smoothly talented and versatile director, and delivers the goods with satisfying dispatch.

The script is by brothers Nicholas and Ted Griffin; Ted wrote the recent "Ocean's Eleven," as well as "Ravenous" and "Best Laid Plans," but this is the first screenplay from Nicholas. It's based on a novel by Eric Garcia, the author of a series of novels about a private detective who is secretly a dinosaur. "Matchstick Men," though it's about a twitchy guy, isn't anywhere near that improbable, but as with most movies about con men, it's not only the characters on screen who are conned.

Roy doesn't have a television set -- which annoys Angela when she stays with him -- but he does have a turntable and frequently plays old LPs, particularly ballads from the late 50s and early 60s. The soundtrack of the film is scored the same way, with great stuff from Frank Sinatra ("Summer Wind" and others), Bobby Darin ("The Good Life," behind the credits), Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, and even Mantovani and his orchestra. This is an unusual approach to scoring a film set today, but Roy himself has a kind of living-in-the-past feel, so the music is highly appropriate. And it's great stuff in the first place. Hans Zimmer provided the composed elements of the score.

Scott uses deep bass tones from time to time, almost vibrating every sternum in the audience, but the movie is generally not a dazzling sonic display. The sound is excellent and well used, but it's not a show unto itself.

It could hardly be when competing with the likes of this cast. Cage is an uneven actor, but he's always inventive and imaginative. He helps make Roy funny, admirable and a little disturbing, less for his twitches than how he's so good at conning people: you know you would believe this guy yourself.

Cage works very well with Lohman ("White Oleander"), who's really in her twenties but is completely convincing as a 14-year-old kid. The heart of the film is their growing father-daughter relationship, and how it is gradually easing poor lonely Roy out of his bag of twitches and compulsions. He even tries to cook for her, but sends out for pizza instead -- something Roy would have never done on his own. Occasionally the Father rears his head, as when, worried about Angela, tells her angrily when she shows up after a night at the arcade that she's a "nosy parker."

Lohman is charming and likeable; she makes us believe deeply in her character and her growing affection for Cage. And he reciprocates; their scenes together are perfectly timed and played.
Sam Rockwell is also very good, as are the Bruces Altman and McGill, but they are not the center of the movie. The cast is small, and so is the scope -- we see some summer-baked Los Angeles, but we're mostly inside cars, buildings and Roy's house.

It has a fresh, lively feel and look; Sir Ridley uses slow motion, fast motion and intense closeups all through the film, helping us to share some of Roy's quirks. But it's a twisted tale clearly told. It doesn't have the emotional impact at the end that is so clearly intended, and the plot is just a shade too mechanical, but it's great fun, one of the best films of the year.

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