“Matchstick men” is slang for grifters or con artists, but this film from Ridley Scott (Hannibal, Black Hawk Down) isn’t just a craftily plotted shell-game movie in the tradition of The Sting or House of Games. It’s also a nice little character study framed by the sort of awkward-parent-figure plot found (with varying degrees of success) in films like About a Boy, What a Girl Wants, and The Family Man.
Roy Waller (Nicolas Cage, Adaptation) is the sort of person who can’t go through a door till he’s opened it three times, is deeply troubled by carpet lint, and relies heavily on illicitly obtained prescription drugs to get through the working day, which in his case includes phone scams and identity theft with his partner, Frank Mercer (Sam Rockwell, Galaxy Quest, The Green Mile).
When his supply of meds unexpectedly dries up, Roy predictably disintegrates, much to Frank’s concern. Soon, though, Roy is seeing a psychiatrist (Bruce Altman, Changing Lanes), who not only provides the medication he needs, but gets him talking and thinking about his life — in particular the woman who walked out on him fourteen years ago, and whether or not she was pregnant at the time.
Enter Angela (24-year-old Alison Lohman, White Oleander), a chipper young waif whose mere presence introduces Roy to a whole new set of anxieties and throws into confusion his fragile attempts to order his existence around his personal obsessions with exactness and routine. Angela is impressed with Roy’s immaculate digs, but nonplused by his sharply limited grocery list (he only eats tuna fish) and lack of television (“You don’t have a TV?” she asks incredulously, and he stammers, “No, but… I have a couch… if you want to… sit”).
Like the character Cage played in the less successful The Family Man, an incomplete, isolated Wall Street player who was humanized by an alternate-reality experience of life as a suburban husband and father, Roy finds that being forced into the unfamiliar role of father figure challenges him to rise to a world of responsibility and concern for others
At the same time, unsettlingly, Angela is anything but put off by Roy’s line of work. “Everyone’s done something bad in their life,” she rationalizes; “if you make a career out of it, it’s just a bunch of somethings strung together.” Eventually, she pressures him into giving her a taste of petty larceny — a moment Scott leavens with a touch of paternal moral responsibility, maintaining the film’s balancing act between con movie and redemptive character drama.
It’s a balance that we sense the film can’t maintain to the end: Ultimately, Matchstick Men must be either a tale of redemption with some con stuff thrown in, or else the tale of a big con with some redemptive stuff thrown in. Scott sustains suspense about which way the film will break for as long as he can, though one big misstep in the middle of the film definitively indicates which way the wind is blowing.
Without giving it away here, I can say that there’s enough of both genres to leave cold viewers looking only for one or the other. Scott wants us to care about Roy and Angela’s relationship, and fans of post-Tarantino caper films like The Usual Suspects may squirm through domestic scenes of Roy cooking dinner for Angela or yelling at her for being out late. By the same token, viewers expecting a tale of a con man redeemed by fatherhood will become increasingly uncomfortable as Angela continues to insinuate herself into her father’s line of work, especially as Roy and Frank take on one last, big scam. In the end, only those equally prepared for either sort of film will be able to really enjoy Matchstick Men.
It can also be said that the film doesn’t remotely condone or take a benign view of criminal activity, nor does it portray crime without consequences. Even Roy doesn’t condone his own actions; though he claims at one point that people con themselves through their own greed, he admits to Angela later, “Lots of times, it’s stealing from people who don’t deserve it. Old people. Fat people.”
In a sense, there’s nothing here that we haven’t seen before. Cage’s tic-ridden, obsessive-compulsive persona isn’t far afield from some of his earlier performances, and his attention to fixed rituals will remind viewers of As Good As It Gets. The scenes of the con man talking to the psychiatrist echo “The Sopranos” and Analyze This/That. Angela’s involvement in Roy’s flimflam work is reminiscent of Peter Bogdanovich’s peculiar little film Paper Moon, about a young girl tagging along with a con man and helping him with his scams.
Yet the acting is uniformly excellent, and, while the climax is easily predictable if one is paying attention, the denouément is unexpectedly thoughtful and open-ended. In the end, the film’s biggest surprise isn’t any of its twists and turns, but how much we finally care about the characters and their ultimate fates.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.