Matchstick Men

Another welcome addition to the confidence trickster canon. Analyse This Sting.

Released in 2003, certified UK-12A. Reviewed on 29 Sep 2003 by Scott Morris
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This film is very good. Go and see it.

No, really. Go at your earliest convenience and enjoy one of the year's better stories told by a great director starring some very fine actors. Knowing too much about this film can only detract from it. Read on at your own risk.

Roy Waller (Nic Cage) is a neurotic mess who happens to be a conman. Afflicted with an extreme obsessive / compulsive disorder, his variety of nervous ticks and involuntary noises seem to have him down more as a Tourette's syndrome sufferer than a suave, smooth talking scammer. Nonetheless, when he maintains his concentration he's good, which explains his nice house that he keeps obsessively clean as any good neurotic mess would. He assisted in his illegal endeavours by his partner and prot?g? Frank Mercer (Sam Rockwell), who can thankfully cover for Roy when he has panic attacks over things like one of their mark's doors being left open.

After accidentally knocking his pills down the drain he goes on a week long cleaning binge, after which Frank convinces him to make an appointment with a shrink. While he initially goes to Dr. Klein (Bruce Altman) to get more medication he eventually opens up and starts to talk about his feelings and occasional guilt about his chosen occupation. He largely rationalises his deeds by saying that they give him the money rather than he takes it. It's impossible to scam an honest man. He mentions how lonely he's been for the last fifteen years, after walking out on his partner after finding out she was pregnant. Racked with guilt and too dysfunctional to phone his ex himself, he asks Dr. Klein to check if he's a daddy or not.

It turns out he is, with a 14 year old daughter named Angela (Alison Lohman) who quickly shows up to stay. This is such a shock to Roy that he forgets his odd rituals in favour of alternately panicking about and bonding with his new-found daughter. This starts to get in the way of his newest and biggest scam, a money laundering setup abusing the services of the whackily named Chuck Frechette (Bruce McGill). The father / daughter thing takes a more interesting turn when Roy reveals his true occupation to Angela and starts to pass on the tips of the con trade to her, all the while discussing how this is making him feel with Dr. Klein. These three largely separate strands end up intertwining by the film's conclusion with startling results.

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And I'm not telling you owt else. Any more details and you would hunt me down and kill me or revealing them. What I can reveal (oh, what a slick bridging device! Phffeh. I need writing lessons. Forward any offers to the usual address) is that each of the sub-plots are more than strong enough to be spun off into main movies on their own. Cage shows why he's near universally regarded as one of Hollywood's current finest actors (apart from those who continually bring up his Coppola connection, ironic given that Coppola has done nothing of interest in years) in his therapy scenes. His little foibles and noises tread an at times dangerous tightrope between the balance of humour and the plunging precipice of sheer irritation, but he traverses it as easily as this analogy is desperately forced. As he gradually opens his character both to Klein and eventually to his daughter, his neuroses and his compulsions slip away revealing a fairly tragic character who we eventually hope for his redemption in some form or other.

Roy's growing relationship with his daughter manages to avoid the usual family drama pitfalls on the basis of fine acting and the unusual juxtaposition of it unfolding amongst Roy espousing the fine art of scamming people. While there's an easy comparison for his therapy scenes with Analyse This or early Sopranos, I can't think of any peers in the teen / parent relationship to favourably or unfavourably compare it to. This is neither a bad nor a good thing as regards the movie, but for some reason I just feel like exposing my ignorance on a public forum. I have issues.

The con scheme that Frank and Roy perpetrate on an unwitting Chuck (who is played adroitly by McGill, displaying gullibility and a hard edged danger when called upon) is simple, but no less beautiful for it. The lottery ticket scam used as a training ground for Angela is similarly cleverly executed, and it's clear that this is the film Confidence wishes it was, with the slickness of Ocean's Eleven but minus the insufferable smugness. These three largely disparate sub-plots inevitably collide as is very much the fashion these days and it could easily have ended up as one huge wreck, but Nicholas and Ted Griffin do a skilful adaptation of Eric Garcia's novel. It never feels overly convoluted, it never feels as though too much is happening at any one time until events start to catch up with and overtake Roy towards the film's conclusion. Ridley Scott handles everything with an ease that makes it easy to get swept along with the flow which makes the final scenes all the more powerful, and he coaxes subtle performances from Lohman and Cage in a scene that could have destroyed the movie but actually enhances it.

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Perhaps the greatest con in the movie is perpetrated by Alison Lohman, as I don't recall seeing a more convincing portrayal of an exuberant teenager this year. I had a looksee at the incomparable IMDB to see what else this very promising child actress had been in only to fall off my seat after finding out that she's not a child actress after all. At 24 years of age she's actually only nine days younger than I am. Utterly believable and displaying levels of subtlety befitting someone twice her actual age, let alone her character's age, Lohman is a revelation.

Sam Rockwell has been a revelation for sometime and he's doing nothing to trouble that judgements, but after his excellent stint in Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind I've a hankering to see him in more lead roles rather than the bit part support he's providing here. Make no mistake, he does it as well as is humanly possible and is responsible for a good many of the films funniest moments but he's not being stretched. Having a dandy line in headgear is no substitute for a near vanishing small amount of screen time and for a fair amount of that he's just there to dispense the odd witticism, and that's about as strong a criticism as I can poke at this film.

With an excellent plot, strong performances all round both in front of and behind the camera and a wonderfully eclectic soundtrack Matchstick Men is a worthy addition to an ever growing glut of twisty-turny con crime capers. I've a feeling I may end up revising this score upwards once it appears on the home formats and we see how it stands up to re-watching and the test of time, but certainly at the moment there's little out in the multiplex to better it. Recommended unreservedly.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.

Ridley Scott
Cast list:
Nicolas Cage (Roy Waller)
Sam Rockwell (Frank Mercer)
Alison Lohman (Angela)
Bruce Altman (Dr. Klein)
Bruce McGill (Chuck Frechette)