Matchstick Men Movie Review

Matchstick Men is an uncharacteristic departure for director Ridley Scott. After all, who didn't think the man was utterly without a sense of humor or even a soul of after the hopelessly depressing Gladiator and Black Hawk Down?

But even Scott proves that he can't suppress his frosted side forever, thanks to this spirited and undeniably sweet look at the con game spliced with a family drama -- his best work in years.

Nicolas Cage stars in another solid performance as Roy, a long time con artist (aka matchstick man) who also suffers from severe paranoia, neurosis, phobias, clean-freakiness, and a whole panoply of you-name-it mental disorders. Naturally, this causes his work to suffer, though his partner Frank (Sam Rockwell) is patient and encouraging. Once day, Roy's shrink (who provides a happy pink pill that keeps Roy functional) vanishes, sending Roy into the arms of a new psychiatrist, and through roundabout circumstances ends up reunited with his long-lost 14-year-old daughter Angela (Alison Lohman). Through Angela's teenage determination and Roy's social instability, the precocious girl ends up learning Roy's trade and helps out in a big score for Roy and Frank, while parents in the audience endure churning stomachs at the very thought.

Oh, and it's not all gritty drama. It's a comedy of sorts, as Roy's illness, Frank's outrageousness, and Angela's awwww-she's-so-cute-you-can-put-her-in-your-pocket-ness are played for laughs and more than a little bit of sentimentality.

Although the film's plot is not without its derivative moments, lifted from House of Games, Analyze This, Catch Me If You Can, and As Good As It Gets, it's still pretty lively despite a general familiarity that we've seen a lot of its vignettes before. When Roy teaches an eager Angela a con involving a future-dated lottery ticket, the film is at its best. It's the little touches that help Matchstick Men feel fresh. That it avoids the "mob boss after me" and "gotta get one last score" clichés (well, pretty much) is just icing on the cake.

The performances are key to the success of the film, and Lohman is the standout, making a far greater impression than she did in the stillborn White Oleander. Cage is good but not great, trying a little too hard to work a twitching eye tic into defining his character. Scott's direction is predictably indulgent, using fast-motion and slow-motion willy-nilly and to limited and even counterproductive effect. Matchstick Men also earns the dubious distinction of having the most annoying credits sequence of 2003, which you have to see to be properly annoyed by. As with any con movie, there are always plot inconsistencies when you think about the film later. But the worst of them slaps you right in the face: Why would a guy obsessed with cleanliness smoke constantly?

In the end, it's the relationship between Roy and his estranged daughter that is meant to resonate with us, and sure enough it does. There are surprises in store for the viewer, too, and sticking with the film is hardly a chore, though it runs over two hours. It never degenerates into schmaltz -- Angela is too "street" for that and Roy is too freakin' weird -- but it never quite elevates into classic status a la Harold and Maude. It's a very good and often touching, and God help you if after you see it you can't weasel a few hundred bucks out of the old lady down the road.

DVD extras include a commentary from Scott and his writers, Nicholas and Ted Griffin, as well as an extensive making-of feature/diary.

Looking for matches.


Matchstick Men Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: R, 2003


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