This stretch of the calendar brings two certainties when it comes to Hollywood releases. The end-of-summer/start-of-school period means audiences are staying away from theaters, and studios are releasing some of the chaff that has been gathering dust in their vaults. Just the past few weeks saw a studio purge that inflicted us with a two-year-old Ashton Kutcher embarrassment (My Boss’s Daughter), an indistinguishable Jackie Chan title, and “Marci X”, which was so poor that it will not make $2 million despite being released to 1,200 theaters. The best example that this is a dismal season? Last week a David Spade movie was the #1 film.
All is not hopeless at the time, however, as “Matchstick Men” is actually a quality endeavor, and not because of the poor comparisons surrounding it. Although this Ridley Scott film covers familiar cinematic ground—following the activities of professional hustlers—what distinguishes it is that it chooses to focus less on the con and more on the man. Nicolas Cage stars as a middle level confidence man, (con artist, he proudly corrects) who has to contend with emotional problems and an unknown daughter as he tries to separate people from their money. While the premise may have an echo of “Paper Moon”, it falls closer to Catch Me if You Can in terms of emotion and character.
Cage plays Roy, the experienced member in a duo of professional grifters who prey on the elderly and gullible with a catalogue of frauds designed to bring in a steady, but modest stream of cash. While his partner Frank (Sam Rockwell, perfectly comfortable as the slovenly protégé’) desires going after bigger prey to net larger returns, Roy begs him off, content with his reliable system. He states that grander schemes bring too much risk, but it is clear that what is really holding Roy back from a big payday is his psychological condition. Battling with a fear of open spaces and obsessive-compulsive behavior, he mostly suffers these conditions in private. But while he appears comfortable and confident as he works his various ploys, his emotional problems creep dangerously close to unraveling the swindles.
Roy’s psychological troubles run deep, from his inability to form relationships to being locked into a life of strict routine. At one point he reveals how painfully fastidious he has become, stating that even as he was tempted to take his own life, he could never carry it out for fear of the effect it would have on his immaculate carpeting. But events quickly force changes upon Roy. When his medication source leaves town he is forced to seek out a true therapist, and his sessions lead to the introduction of a teenage daughter he only suspected may exist. Alison Lohman (White Oleander) is fourteen year old Angela, and as she insinuates herself into Roy’s home, she also begins to encroach upon his life and his work.
Slowly he enjoys an awakening to fatherhood and the positive effects it has on his life. He even tells Frank that he wants to go after the big score, and then learns what he really wants for his life. Best of all, the story delivers an even bigger payoff for the audience.
“Matchstick Men” works because of the way the key players handle the material. Nicolas Cage shows restraint, alternating between a smooth operator and an unraveling neurotic, giving Roy his quirks and tics only when his emotions start to slide. Equally impressive is the work of Ridley Scott. As a director known for his opulent sets (“Alien”, “Blade Runner”) or working on an epic scale (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down) here he surprises by using a small cast and setting most of the story with tight interiors, emblematic of the internal life endured by Roy. He is deft enough to use subtle, yet significant touches, such as showing Roy’s growing confidence by his ability to roll down a car window to flick a cigarette where previous he would only stuff the ashtray while the windows seal him inside.
It is not often that we see big names collectively agreeing to simply lend their talents to forward the plot and to resist drawing too much attention on themselves. This is the work of professionals acknowledging a good story and knowing better than to get in the way.
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