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Matchstick Men

Movie review by Greg Carlson

For those who love the con-artist genre, it is difficult to take in any new stories without the cautious, attentive, knowledge that at some point, the old switcheroo is going to pulled on the audience as well as on the characters in the narrative.  Ridley Scott’s “Matchstick Men,” adapted from the novel by Eric Garcia, is no exception to this rule, but the richness and depth of the primary performances softens a great deal of the typical frustration one feels as a victim of the “Jamaican Switch.”

Nicolas Cage, as an artful dodger with a satchel full of neurotic tics, twitches, and nervous mannerisms, is the center of the movie’s universe.  His Roy Waller belongs in the pantheon of over-the-top screen depictions of fanciful phobics.  Stuttering, blinking, and hiccupping his way through a sensational performance on par with his very best work, Cage’s turn might occasionally remind you of his Academy Award-winning role as self-destructive alcoholic Ben Sanderson in “Leaving Las Vegas,” or his recent double-duty as Charlie and Donald Kaufman in “Adaptation.”  This sort of stuff is what Cage does best – he’s the Miles Davis of the mentally maladjusted.

Stars are only as good as the actors with whom they are surrounded, and Cage is aided and abetted by Sam Rockwell and Alison Lohman.  Rockwell equals the insouciant, oily charm of his Chuck Barris impersonation in “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” as Roy’s partner-in-crime, Frank Mercer.  Frank is as loose and slovenly as Roy is clenched and meticulous – he’s the kind of guy who scarfs down cheeseburgers over Roy’s perfectly manicured carpet even when he knows the crumbs drive his pal to distraction.  Lohman is, without second thought, the film’s not-so-secret weapon.  A 23-year-old playing a 14-year-old (the actress turns 24 on September 18) Lohman is dazzling as Angela, Roy’s long-lost daughter, and steals every scene in which she appears.

Ridley Scott, clearly taking a much needed break from the overbearing bombast of flicks like “Gladiator” and “Black Hawk Down,” shrewdly steps back and lets his actors have at it.  With players as good as these, it is a delight to just watch them strut their stuff, but Scott also understands pacing, rhythm, design, and the value of parallel storylines.  The “big con” that Frank and Roy are pulling on a mark named Frechette (inhabited by on-the-nose Bruce McGill) supposedly drives the story, but the scenes in which Roy bonds with Angela are a sublime cut above.  Once Roy begins to teach Angela the tricks of his trade (she is, of course, a natural born grifter), the movie takes flight and manages to soar for nearly the majority of its remaining running time.

“Matchstick Men” is not quite perfect, however, in that the screenplay (by Nicholas Griffin and Ted Griffin) violates its own elaborate premise on a few occasions, unscrupulously – and some would argue unfairly – scamming the viewer after the manner of its protagonists.  The tired and overused “One Year Later” coda is trotted out with some ambivalence, and the final result leaves a decidedly curious aftertaste.  Despite these minor flaws, “Matchstick Men” shimmers and sparkles like the water in Roy’s well maintained but never utilized backyard pool.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/15/03. 

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