Lie, cheat, steal, rinse, repeat
What better way to kill time than make a movie or something? Director Ridley Scott, who seems to be involved in everything these days, churned out Matchstick Men in short order; actually, as he notes on the documentary, it was in the six months prior to planning his epic Tripoli he realized he had some time for this Nicolas Cage spearheaded con artist comedy. Thank goodness, because few directors unleash consistently quality product like Scott—and Matchstick Men is no exception.
Facts of the Case
Roy (Cage) and Frank (Sam Rockwell) have the con artist game down. One of the movie's first sequences is a particularly loathsome ploy perpetrated by this duo on some clueless retirees. Their slippery antics and sharp tongues keep the money flowing in, especially for Roy, who's built an expensive home and a comfortable lifestyle on his deception. But material wealth isn't the only thing Roy has gleaned from his career. Paranoid, he stashes his money and a gun in his house ("just in case"), guards his precious safety-deposit box with distrusting vigor, and boasts an impressive slate of overwhelming neuroses—facial tics, agoraphobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, the list goes on.
To calm these maladies, Roy has been taking illegally-prescribed medication; that is, until his doctor breezes town and he's forced to find another doctor. After some office time and a few confessions, Roy is suddenly confronted with the reality of another cog in his life—a long-lost daughter, courtesy of his estranged wife.
With his doctor's help, Roy tracks down Angela (Alison Lohman), a 14-year-old firecracker, at first reluctant to let dad into her life. Eventually, she warms up to Roy, though his insecurities and idiosyncrasies constantly present an impasse to authentic affection. Angela is fascinated by her father's line of work, though Roy wishes to avoid dragging his daughter into his world.
Peripheral to the "father and daughter reunited" storyline is a massive score Roy and Frank have been cooking up. In fact, this is the con to end all cons, with Chuck, a hapless mark (the rock-solid Bruce McGill, another one of "the guys who have been in everything") ready to fork over thousands of dollars.
These two dominant forces in Roy's life are about to collide, and the results will change him forever.
The interesting thing about Matchstick Men was that the filmmakers took a whole bevy of plot clichés, threw them into a cauldron, simmered, mixed, and molded, and ended up with an entertaining, creative little plot-driven flick.
Seriously, on the surface you've got the neurotic, psychologically imbalanced guy and his relationship with his doctor, the family reunited/child-the-source-of-salvation Oprah-like spectacle, the precocious little kid, so shrewd in his/her insight, the twisty con artist theme, and then the element of the Big Score, prominent in the rash of heist movies that have recently been unleashed.
But Ridley Scott and writers Nicholas and Ted Griffin have managed to elicit some fresh-feeling material. It also helps that superb performers back the writing. Cage has always been one of my favorites, and Sam Rockwell is the man. Alison Lohman does really well as the daughter of a mess of a father (especially considering she's a 22-year-old playing a 14 year-old!).
Though many would argue this is a dialogue-driven film, I disagree. Everything here serves the story—the performances, Scott's hyper-kinetic direction, and the dialogue—marching each character to the very end scene. And be sure to stay through the end, too.
Billed as a comedy, Matchstick Men has some funny moments, particularly with Roy's ailments and his absorption of fatherly responsibility in his loopy life. But the heart of the movie is drama, and is rife with tense, dark moments. Basically, don't go into it thinking you'll laugh your melon off; but you will be entertained.
Warner Brothers has put forth a disc with only two special features, including the commentary track with Scott and the writers. The track is informative and all, but for quality access, turn to the three-part documentary of the Matchstick Men production. Though it represents the only other feature, it's a great one, perhaps one of the finest behind-the-scenes featurettes I've seen. With it, we get real candid access to Scott, the actors, and his crew; the various elements that go into production, from costume design to casting to location scouting; and a peek at the stress a jammed camera can produce (Scott's sole moment of anger on the whole production). Really, this is great stuff, and it makes up for the lack of any other features, not to mention the crappy snapper case.
The widescreen transfer is really clean, and the colors are sharp and vibrant, especially notable in some of Roy's freak-out scenes. Sound is a good 5.1 mix. Unlike some of Scott's most recent forays into the Roman coliseum or the havoc of Mogadishu, a digital mix isn't really pushed—or required to be pushed—in Matchstick Men. But it gets the job done.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Matchstick Men may suffer from what ailed The Sixth Sense. The latter was also a good movie, but once the plot was meditated on, and reason and logic was applied, things began to unravel. The same, I think, can be said for Matchstick Men. After thinking about it hard enough, I found the film started to show a few too many gaps in plot progression.
Matchstick Men is a quieter movie than what we've come to expect lately from Ridley Scott, but just because there are no marauding barbarian hordes and RPGs flying every which way doesn't mean the film is any less worthwhile.
All parties are released, and the filmmakers are thanked for not creating a typical whiny-little-puke-kid-reunites-with-loser-dad film. Court adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary Tracks (Director, Writers)
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