Matchstick Men (2003) / Crime-Comedy

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for adult themes, violence, some sexual content and language
Running time: 116 min.

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Alison Lohman, Sam Rockwell, Bruce Altman, Bruce McGill
Director:  Ridley Scott
Screenplay: Nicholas Griffin, Ted Griffin

Review published September 14, 2003

I've always found great enjoyment in the con man thrillers, usually because they are the smartest of the suspense genre, having to be totally believable, while doing some things so subtle that it would be hard to imagine people going for the bait in every way necessary for the scam to work.  Even if the job seems hard to believe, there is still great tension in seeing things develop and proceed, knowing that one false move could mean the end for those on the grift. 

Alas, there is a down side.  It's almost become cliché for writers and directors to try to con the audience in the end, so much so that we have become too wise to be totally fooled, always knowing that the other shoe will drop at some point, and the only suspense comes in trying to figure out when and why.  In the con thriller genre, Matchstick Men benefits by not being completely about the craft of the con, but about relationships and coping, of tying up the loose ends that plague you.  It's quite a heartwarming tale, and also a heartbreaking one, not exactly your typical swindle flick.  Yet, at the same time, it still fits the mold, right down to the "conning the audience" revelation, and unfortunately, what tries to impress us becomes the story's downfall. 

Nicolas Cage stars as neurotic conman, Roy.  He's spent years making a living by swindling others, and along with his partner in crime, Frank, they work all of the angles for maximum profit, and never come close to getting caught.  Roy's nervous tics and severe phobias plague him so much that when he loses his ability to get meds, he has nowhere to turn except to try to get them legally, by going to a shrink and getting them prescribed.  This comes at a price, as the doctor needs proof of his condition, which opens up old wounds about Roy's ex-wife and the child he may or may not have had.  At Roy's request, the doctor reveals that Roy indeed has a daughter, one that would very much like to meet him, but with the biggest job in his career going down, Roy finds it hard to juggle his newfound fatherhood and staying razor sharp in the business.

Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Blade Runner) directs, so you know you're in capable hands for much of the way in terms of style.  It's a quirky kind of film, kind of a comedy, kind of a drama, and kind of a thriller, but not really enough of any to qualify as any of them.  More impressive than Scott's sure hand is the quality of the acting by everyone.  Although initially it would look like Cage's mental ailments would play out more like Bill Murray's over-the-top performance in What About Bob?, once you get used to it, you can see that it is far deeper than that, and quite consistent in that it is inconsistent, which is infinitely more realistic.  As good as Cage is, there is one performance that is a level above his, and that's the outstanding one by Alison Lohman (White Oleander), in her early 20s playing the 14-year-old girl, completely convincingly.  Beyond this, she has an extremely challenging role, having to wear many hats, some of them at the same time, but she wears them all quite well.  You really do begin to care about Roy's relationship with his long-vacant daughter, and only through the tremendous performances could this be achieved.

There is a problem with this much character study and development however, as the reasons for the film being good are also what makes it so unsatisfying by the end.  The relationship goes through many ups and downs as the film progresses, and each time we feel more and more that we want them to be able to work it out, as they seem to each hold the key to each other's happiness.  Yet, Nicholas and Ted Griffin's adaptation of Eric Barcia's book brings us back to reality, making us keenly aware once again that the movie is called Matchstick Men, and not Fatherhood for a reason, as much as we'd like it to be by this point of the film.

I suppose it's just as well, as the modus operandi of the conman is to offer you something you really want, using your strong desire to take from you that which you seek, as well as anything else they can get their hands on.  Like the swiftest and most conniving of swindlers, the creative minds behind Matchstick Men lull us into a feeling of genuine contentment, only to see it vanish in an instant, leaving us empty-handed and empty-hearted.  Equally unsettling is the feeling that it's done as a gimmick, as believing such a development requires covering over too many plot holes and allowing for too many contrivances.  C'mon guys...was it really worth tossing away a nice story just to toy with the audience?

Unlike true conmen, there is a conscience that creeps into the final moments of Matchstick Men, kind of a consolation prize to us in the audience for having been dupes.  It feels more like a cop-out than an earnest attempt at repayment, and while it's nice to know that those who have conned us feel badly about their deed, we're mostly mad at ourselves for having been dumb enough to be reeled in so efficiently.  On a purely intellectual level, I can appreciate the masterful minds that crafted such a skillful swindle.  Like any victim, I somehow can't bring myself to liking it.

Qwipster's rating:

©2003 Vince Leo