Matchstick Men (United States, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Movies about confidence tricksters represent an old, although not necessarily respected, sub-genre of the thriller. Many of these films are cheap and cheesy, with silly plots and "twists" that are shaky and predictable. There are a few notable exceptions, such as The Sting and The Grifters. To that elite list can be added Ridley Scott's Matchstick Men, which has a lot more on its agenda than the protagonists' big score - like redemption and salvation, for example. When the film is finally over, ask yourself who really gained the most. The answer may be counterintuitive, but it's not hard to figure out.

Nicolas Cage, fresh off his performance as the oddball Kauffman twins in Adaptation, plays Roy Waller, an obsessive/compulsive sufferer who happens to be one of the best operating grifters. Along with his partner, Frank (Sam Rockwell), there's virtually no scam he can't pull off - as long as his psychological problems remain under control. When properly medicated, Roy exhibits a few quirks - such as shutting doors three times and demanding that people take off their shoes before entering his house. But, when his pink pills run out, he becomes a mess of nervous energy, prone to facial tics and profane outbursts. Enter Dr. Klein (Bruce Altman), a psychiatrist who believes there's more to solving Roy's problems than medicating him. Soon, Dr. Klein has put Roy in touch with a 14-year old daughter, Angela (Alison Lohman), he never knew he had. And, just as Roy is beginning to form a bond with his teenage offspring, Frank approaches Roy about pulling off a big con on an easy mark. For the first time in his life, Roy sees a possible conflict between his personal life and his professional one, and his means of bridging it is to bring Angela in on the scam. She becomes his partner, and loves every minute of it.

Matchstick Men is really two movies brilliantly spliced into one, each enriching the other. The first focuses on Cage's character - his psychological problems, his misgivings about his profession, and, most importantly, his relationship with Angela. The suddenness with which she arrives in his life opens up a world of possibilities he had never previously considered, and, at the same time, makes him aware of how unprepared he is for any major life-changing decision. The second focuses on Frank and Roy's cons, which, while not monumentally unique, are interesting enough to keep us involved in the game.

In addition to being moderately suspenseful (a necessity for any movie about grifters and their crimes), Matchstick Men also has a sly, biting sense of humor that occasionally results in laugh-aloud moments. And it's emotionally satisfying, with the association between Roy and Angela becoming central to the storyline. It's fascinating to watch these two characters interact. There's a sense of discovery in this relationship, as each of these two realizes that the other fills needs they were unaware of having. Angela gets to live out the fantasy of finding out what it's like to have a real father, and Roy is given the opportunity to experience the wonders of what he missed when his wife walked out on him 14 years ago.

For Ridley Scott, the director of such high-intensity films as Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, and Gladiator, this represents a departure. Scott has done character-related pieces before (the aforementioned Thelma & Louise being an example, as well as White Squall), but never have they been this light. For a filmmaker who has not previously ventured into comedy, Scott shows a deft hand. But, with someone of his experience, would it have been reasonable to expect anything less?

With Roy, Nicolas Cage adds another quirky character to his resume. He is convincing without being over-the-top or irritating. As Angela, Alison Lohman is instantly likeable, and proves that her eye-opening performance in White Oleander was no fluke. Sam Rockwell's portrayal of Frank has just the right mix of cynicism and sincerity. The dialogue - especially that between Roy and Frank - crackles with wit and intelligence (a rarity in films these days).

Unable to see the movie at the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival due to scheduling conflicts, I waited to see Matchstick Men during its opening weekend in general release. That meant shelling out some of my own hard-earned money. Happily, I can report that the experience was worth every cent of the $7.00 it cost. Matchstick Men is the first winner of the fall movie season - a welcome antidote to the summer's mindless incoherence.

Matchstick Men (United States, 2003)

Run Time: 1:56
U.S. Release Date: 2003-09-12
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1