Movie Review

 

Matchstick Men

Matchstick Men
 
Production Company: Warner Brothers
Director: Ridley Scott
Principals: Nicholas Cage, Alison Lohman, Sam Rockwell,
Rating: PG-13 (language and depictions of crime)

By Gregg Tubbs

(UMC.org) -- Director Ridley Scott’s new comedy Matchstick Men poses the eternal question: Is it possible to deal with personal neurosis, learn to become a good father AND pull off a world-class heist at the same time? What’s a modern parent/con artist to do?

Matchstick Men
Roy Waller (Cage) is obsessed with germs, afraid of the outdoors and chain-smokes his way through a series of illogical rituals. © 2003 Warner Brothers. All Rights Reserved.
Ridley Scott, who’s known for epics like Gladiator switches gears dramatically here to dish up a quirky character-comedy, loosely wrapped around the story of two L.A. con men - or matchstick men as they prefer to be called – and their plan to rip off a local high roller. The script is by the same team who wrote last year’s Ocean’s Eleven, but Matchstick Men draws its real inspiration from Paper Moon, which featured Ryan O’Neal as a 1930’s grifter and his real-life daughter, Tatum, as his precocious juvenile protégé.

Here, Nicholas Cage plays Roy Waller, a con man so plagued by obsessive-compulsive behavior and tics that it’s hard to believe he’s also a genius with the scam. He’s obsessed with germs, afraid of the outdoors and chain-smokes his way through a series of illogical rituals – like counting to three before opening a door. When his condition worsens, his sidekick Frank (Sam Rockwell) convinces Roy to try therapy. In the course of his therapy, Roy discovers his hidden desire to reconnect with the 14 year-old daughter, Angela (Alison Lohman), he's never seen. From here, Roy, Frank and Angela dive into some very complicated and uncharted territory.

Matchstick Men
Angela (Lohman), to everyone’s surprise (or maybe not!) is all too anxious to learn the family trade. © 2003 Warner Brothers. All Rights Reserved.
Cage is both dazzling and hilarious as Roy, bedeviled by his tics and obsessive rituals and confounded by his new role as dad. Cage stops just shy of all-out shtick, making Roy both realistic and sympathetic. Rockwell and Lohman create their own colorful, but more stable characters, around which Cage fitfully orbits. Rockwell’s Frank is an easygoing slob who’s the polar opposite of the tightly wound Roy, while Angela, to everyone’s surprise (or maybe not!) is all too anxious to learn the family trade. As Roy opens up to Angela and haltingly begins to blossom as a father, his tics and obsessive activities drop away like chains that once bound him.

When we first meet Roy and Frank, they’re scraping by, running a series of small-money swindles. This suits Roy, who is semi-retired after amassing a small fortune through years of successful scams. But Frank is itching to pull off his first big score. After the arrival of his daughter, Roy feels up to pulling off one more big con, both as a gift to Frank and as his swan song. As the three divergent plotlines – the caper, Roy’s therapy and his relationship with Angela – all weave a crooked path toward the inevitable collision course – the conclusion is both unexpected and strangely uplifting.

Matchstick Men
After the arrival of his daughter, Roy feels up to pulling off one more big con, both as a gift to Frank and as his swan song. © 2003 Warner Brothers. All Rights Reserved.
No matter what you call these guys – con men, grifters, matchstick men – they’re still crooks! And not the Robin Hood kind either. They steal from the rich to give to themselves.  They even steal from the poor, as we see early in the film. Roy offers this misguided advice to his daughter, “I never said crime doesn’t pay. Just that it doesn’t pay very well.”

But before we write off Matchstick Men as a movie without morals, remember that the primary rule of the caper film is that nothing and no one are what they seem, and fooling the audience is all part of the fun. To give away more of the story would be a crime itself. But be assured, there are real lessons to be learned as these matchstick men weave their plots, apply their financial slight-of-hand and ultimately reveal their true selves. There are shrewd observations about greed and deception as well as the ultimate truth that there is hope for anyone who recognizes his sin and is determined to change.

Gregg Tubbs is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Maryland.



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