Cage's role and Cage's acting are terrific. They are the real payoffs in Matchstick Men.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"Matchstick Men" is the sort of light, breezy entertainment that feels a lot more like George Roy Hill or Peter Bogdanovich than it does Ridley Scott. This 2003 release combines plot and character in equally relevant proportions to produce a surprisingly frothy, comedic film for Scott, a director best known for dark, brooding subject matter like "Alien," "Blade Runner," "Hannibal," and "Gladiator." It's a pleasant change of pace, even if the results are somewhat uneven.

OK, I should also say there's a touch of David Mamet in here, "House of Games," "The Spanish Prisoner," that type of thing, but without Mamet's stylized dialogue, making "Matchstick Men" a little more prosaic than Mamet and a little less humorous or romanticized than Hill or Bogdanovich. But perhaps you're getting my drift. "Matchstick Men" is about con games.

Naturally, a movie about confidence games had better have a clever and tricky script, and "Matchstick Men" does have just that. But, needless to say, it's a plot I can't tell you much about without spoiling its potential surprises. Let me simply assure you it's fine, if a bit short on ultimate logic and execution. The problem with the story is that when you look back on it, too much of it depends on split-second timing and sheer coincidence. Yet it doesn't really matter because the plot takes a backseat to the movie's main character and the character's relationships with the people around him. That's where the movie truly comes alive.

Nicolas Cage stars as a lifelong con man, Roy Waller. As he explains it, he's a "con artist, a flimflam man, matchstick man, loser, whatever you want to call it, take your pick." His job is to rob people by gaining their trust, their confidence, and then fleecing them. At the moment he's at the top of his game, selling folks water filtration systems over the telephone for ten times their actual cost. But he only goes for the short cons, the little games, a few hundred bucks at a time. You see, he's got a conscience. He really doesn't like what he does, but it's the only thing he knows how to do well.

Worse, while he is supremely sure of himself in his line of work, he's a complete neurotic in his personal life. He hasn't had a relationship, serious or otherwise, with anyone since his wife left him fourteen years before, and he's plagued by a plethora of tics and foibles. Off the job, his eye is always twitching, his speech is broken and convulsed, and he's got phobias almost too numerous to mention, ranging from a fear of open doors to a fear of the whole out-of-doors, from germs on doorknobs to shoes on his carpet. On top of that, he's a compulsive order and neatness freak. The guy's a mess, and Cage plays him to perfection. If his character had had a physical or mental disability, too, Cage would have been nominated for an Oscar.

Anyway, Roy's got a partner in crime, Frank Mercer (Sam Rockwell), who's the exact opposite of him. Frank is laid-back, casual to a fault, and a complete and undisciplined slob. In other words, compared to Roy, he's normal. Frank suggests that Roy see a shrink when Roy loses the last of the pills his old doctor gave him before fleeing town. (Apparently, everyone Roy knows is a crook.) Roy goes to a psychiatrist, Dr. Klein (Bruce Altman), who suggests that for the sake of his well being, maybe Roy should get in touch with his ex-wife, especially since there is the possibility that Roy may have a fourteen-year-old child he's never seen.

Which leads us to the film's auxiliary plot. Roy meets his daughter, Angela (Alison Lohman), for the first time, a precocious, noisy, nosy, aggressive teenager. Roy hardly knows how to speak to her; nor does he know how to behave around her when the girl insists upon moving in with him for a few days during a fight with her mother. How do you deal with a brand-new daughter when you can't even deal with ordinary people? "She said you were a bad guy," Angela says to Roy, passing on an attitude her mother instilled in her. "You don't seem like a bad guy," she adds. "That's what makes me good at it," Roy tells her.

To do something for the girl, to impress her, to make up for fourteen years of abandonment, so to speak, and to prove to her he's not the loser his ex-wife's made him out to be, Roy decides to pull a big con, a big score. With Frank, Roy chooses a rich, tough guy named Chuck Frenchette (Bruce McGill) as the mark. The idea is to con him in a money-exchange scheme. Meanwhile, Angela begins catching on that her dad's not the antiques dealer he says he is.

And there you have it. Three separate stories going on simultaneously: Roy's life and personality, Roy's relationship with his newly acquired daughter, and the big con. The pieces mesh seamlessly, but as I've said, it's the first two parts that work best. The movie's con-game angle with Frenchette takes a long time getting started and probably won't pay off for every viewer when it's finished; but Cage's role and Cage's acting are terrific. They are the real payoffs in "Matchstick Men."

The first best thing about the video is that its image size is a generous 2.17:1 ratio anamorphic widescreen, closely duplicating its theatrical Panavision dimensions of 2.35:1. The second best thing is that the picture is exceptionally clean and clear, with almost no grain in evidence anywhere. On the less positive side, object delineation is fairly ordinary, and colors are slightly muted, subdued, in appearance. The hues also tend toward the bluish-grey side, but I'm not sure why the director chose this look for the film. Scott's films are noted for their moody color schemes, so maybe he was trying to create a serious, realistic aspect here. In any case, it works well enough, as anything brighter or more showy would have detracted from the tone of the story.

The sound is reproduced via Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, and it does everything expected of a modern soundtrack. Hans Zimmer's low-key background score is given appropriate ambiance reinforcement, the rear channels carry a few nice environmental touches, and bass is deep and strong. Most of all, though, I was impressed with the smoothness of the sound and its occasional dynamic impact. When the sonic effects or music need punch, the audio engineers come through.

Two major bonus items work together like a mini film class. An audio commentary by producer-director Ridley Scott, writer Nicholas Griffin, and writer Ted Griffin articulates the filmmakers' intentions as they were creating the movie. And a seventy-one minute documentary, "Tricks of the Trade: Making Matchstick Men," follows the director and crew through the day-to-day process of filmmaking from preproduction to production to postproduction. Jointly, the pair of extras reveal as much about moviemaking as most books on the subject. Then, there are thirty scene selections; a widescreen theatrical trailer; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. Remember, it's not always the quantity of the extras on a disc that is important but the quality. I found this material rather straightforward but highly informative and enlightening.

Parting Thoughts:
If you're the kind of moviegoer who enjoyed "Paper Moon" or "The Sting," you might like "Matchstick Men" as well. It doesn't quite measure up to those more illustrious predecessors, but it follows a similar thread. Besides, even if you don't care for the story line or you have everything figured out well in advance, it's hard not to like Cage in a part so quirky. His character and his acting are hard to forget. Indeed, the film is so lightweight that Cage may be the only thing you will remember about it an hour after seeing it. But he makes it all worthwhile.


Film Value