Con artist movies are famous for keeping the audience in the dark. Director Ridley Scott's new film Matchstick Men takes this quite literally. Head grifter Roy, played by Nicolas Cage is an obsessive compulsive agoraphobic, so we spend a lot of daylight hours inside his house with the curtains drawn, picking individual fibers off the carpet. Cage is an actor who nearly always brings a physical affectation to his role, and handed Roy's over-the-top affliction, he becomes a dervish of nervous mannerisms. Con artist films typically find their suspense in ever-tightening webs of deception and betrayal. Matchstick Men manages to make us nervous watching Roy wait in line at the supermarket. It's the kind of nervousness that threatens the enjoyment of the film, which by all outward indications is meant to taken as a lark. Still, lovers of deception and betrayal will find plenty to embrace in Matchstick Men.
Based on the novel by Eric Garcia, the film opens with Roy and his partner Frank -- played by Sam Rockwell -- operating a well-oiled but modest scam in which they play both fraudulent telemarketers and the FDA agents sent to notify the victims. As a burly no-nonsesnse husband chides his wife for her naivete, he signs over access to their bank account to investigators Roy and Frank to help them catch these telemarketer punks. We momentarily forget that these are innocent retirees being fleeced, and grin at the sheer audacity of the scam. It almost unravels when the husband opens a curtain and agoraphobic Roy recoils like a vampire. And at this fairly early juncture in the film, the con artistry takes a back seat as Roy seeks treatment for his many afflictions. Having lost his pharmaceutical connection, Roy is forced to go to a psychoanalyst, played by Bruce Altman, who deftly begins to explore the core root of Roy's problems.
Enter Alison Lohman, playing the 14 year old daughter Roy never knew he had. For a man getting his first taste of parenthood, a 14 year old girl might seem cruel and unusual punishment. But Roy finds himself having fits of responsibility, and without really noticing he become increasingly functional. Enough to try his hand at a bigger con that partner Frank has been eying, a fairly simple bait and switch involving a greedy mark and international currency. Roy has always managed to overcome his afflictions when it comes to the actual con, where he becomes a master of self-assurance. But as the film has so clearly telegraphed, his daughter is both his weakness and potential salvation. After having the father-daughter reconciliation and the One Last Con take turns as subplots, everything comes together in a last second twist that I honestly didnít see coming.
Con artist films also depend on momentum. The kind of momentum that keeps you from seeing the twist coming. And hopefully from asking too many logical questions, any one of which would bring the elaborate scheme to its knees. Matchstick Men is guilty of excess, but like its con artist characters you are tempted to forgive it. Having kept the audience in the dark most of the film, Matchstick Men treats itself to a very light and fluffy epilogue. Maybe the filmmakers were cheating. But I guess thatís in the spirit of the movie, too.
© 2003 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 9/10/03
US - 2003