Something less than the sum of its parts, Matchstick Men is a decent film that should have been a considerably better one. Based on a grab-bag of a screenplay by Nicholas and Ted Griffin, Ridley Scott’s latest is a caper comedy in which Nicolas Cage doesn’t so much portray the central character as accumulate random signifiers on behalf of him.
In addition to being a successful specialist in the short con, for example, Roy is obsessive compulsive. He has an endearingly oddball way of closing doors three times to make sure they’re shut, he prefers not to venture outside, and his minimalist home is stocked with an arsenal of cleaning supplies.
In addition, he ticks wildly at times and tends to accompany his blinking and gesticulating with bizarre hums and guttural utterances. Statistically, Roy is a rare bird, suffering from two such colorful, film-friendly maladies but these are just the beginning of the script’s offbeat touches.
He lives alone and subsists almost exclusively on tuna though, aside from several striking shots of cans stacked in his otherwise barren refrigerator, it’s unclear what this is supposed to contribute to the movie. Likewise, he listens to albums rather than CDs and to music from the 50s rather than the present. Though the film takes place in the present, its soundtrack is as filled with songs by Sinatra and his contemporaries as that of “Catch Me If You Can”, though the significance is never made clear. Ditto when it comes to his affinity for vintage duds.
Needless to say, Cage acts up a humming, blinking, door-shutting storm. He’s a regular July 4th of oddball quirks and idiosyncrasies. The problem is the script never goes deeper, never provides the first clue as to what made him such a monument to dysfunction. Sam Rockwell plays his partner. For my money, his is the picture’s most exhilarating performance though everyone else seems to get the best lines. The two sell wildly overpriced water purification systems out of a faceless LA office building. Cage has socked away a substantial sum over the years. Rockwell is relatively new to the game and chomping at the bit for a bigger score.
One day Roy opens his door and finds himself face to face with a pigtailed 14 year old (Alison Lohman) who announces she’s the daughter he’s never seen. They hang out, little by little he feels himself emerging from the shell he’s been holed up in for ages and one of the first things he does to celebrate is agree to help out with a big money scam that his protégé has been hankering to pull.
Both his determination to open himself up to life and his decision to work the long con with Rockwell backfire, though not in the way we initially are led to believe. That’s because the legendary director is the newest member (are you sitting down?) of the Big Surprise Twist Club. Every Tom, Dick and Harry has been making movies with last minute twists since “The Sixth Sense”. Now you can add Ridley to that list. Interestingly, Scott’s doesn’t stand up to repeated viewing nearly as well as most. Anyone aware of the twist will spot flaws in the foundation the filmmaker lays for it easily upon a second viewing.
As a story of emotional healing, “Matchstick Men” pushes all the right buttons and is periodically satisfying. There isn’t a bad performance and some of the relationships are indeed amusing to explore. As a con artist caper, however, the film leaves a bit to be desired. Much of the fun of films like “Tin Men”, “The Grifters” and Mamet classics like “House of Games” is derived from the insider view we’re afforded of a sophisticated scam’s intricate machinery. In this regard, Scott’s movie delivers less than generously and I for one would’ve traded some warm and fuzzies for a little more bait and switch.
Somehow it doesn’t seem right that the slickest trick pulled off here is the one played on the audience in the final act.
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