THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"MATCHSTICK MEN"

There have been so many movies made about con men (and women) that I think you have to come up with an original angle if you want to make one now. Matchstick Men does this. Although on the surface it seems like little more than an update of Peter Bogdanovich’s 70’s classic Paper Moon, the film has a feel and a style all its own. I think this is evidenced by the fact that the central con (which is fairly easy to figure out) is not really the heart of the story. It’s more about the characters, the lifestyles they lead, and what happens when they all intersect.

Based on a novel by Eric Garcia, the movie stars Nicolas Cage as Roy, a con artist who runs a scheme to sell cheap water purification systems to innocent people for a big price. His partner is Frank (Sam Rockwell), and he’s newer to the con game. Frank has a hunger to make the big score; he also has a tendency to draw a little too much attention to himself, which Roy continually warns him about. A bigger problem, perhaps, is Roy’s near-crippling Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, complete with facial and verbal tics. His fear of germs, the outdoors, and loose carpet fibers can send him into a tailspin at any moment. Roy has to open and close doors exactly three times, and he is prone to scrubbing every single inch of his house.

Roy eventually goes to see a psychiatrist. In the course of their discussion, it comes out that Roy was married once and may have fathered a child he has never met. The shrink agrees to help him find out for sure. In fact, he does have a child – a 14-year old daughter named Angela (Alison Lohman). She comes to stay with him for a while so they can get to know each other. The neurotic Roy doesn’t know what to say to her and doesn’t understand her adolescent ways. In order to bond, he eventually teaches her the only thing he knows how to do: con. She proves to have a natural talent for it. Before long, she’s roped into helping Roy and Frank con a businessman out of a large sum of money.

There is a line of dialogue in Matchstick Men that I think sums the film’s message up pretty well. Angela tells Roy: “You’re not a bad guy. You’re just not a very good one.” This seems to be true. He has feelings of guilt over his cons, especially since he often must take advantage of the elderly or the lonely. He feels even more guilt over teaching Angela how to follow in his footsteps. But his reasons for doing it are purely selfish: it’s the one thing he can give her, and while it ain’t much, it’s at least something. During their moments together, Roy feels alive, loved, connected. His tics calm down and he has something to think about aside from his own weird obsessions. Angela heals him.

That’s the original angle the movie takes. It focuses more on Roy’s transformation that it does on a con. Yes, there is a major con in the film, and yes, the outcome of it does affect Roy. However, it’s not a question of whether the con works; it’s all about how the character changes.

Looking at Roy on paper, Nicolas Cage must have seemed like the natural choice for the part. I mean that in a good way. The actor has specialized in playing eccentric, insecure, or just plain odd characters for most of his career. What makes him so good is not that he plays these parts so well but that he plays them differently each time. Look at Cage’s last movie, Adaptation, in which he also played a guy who was neurotic and insecure. It’s a totally different performance than the one he gives here, even though the two characters share traits. Cage seems to have an unlimited number of ways to vary these kinds of characteristics. If you are a fan of his – as I am – this movie is worth seeing simply for his performance, which is again clever and unique.

The supporting cast ably backs him up. Rockwell – who was terrific as Chuck Barris in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind - is very well cast as the flashy Frank. He doesn’t overplay the role, which a lot of actors might have done. We don’t really get to know much about Frank, probably because there’s not much beneath his desire to swindle somebody out of some big bucks. It’s hard to play a character like that three-dimensionally, but Rockwell does it. Alison Lohman (White Oleander) is also effective. She has to go toe-to-toe with Cage in all her scenes, so this is really a crucial part. The young actress has a believable chemistry with her more seasoned co-star. You really feel their characters shaping each other in new ways. Sometimes it’s magical when two actors spark on-screen; this is one of those times. The combination makes the father/daughter element of the story click.

Matchstick Men was directed by Ridley Scott, who gives the picture a cool visual style that is sometimes interrupted by abrupt editing and filtered images meant to convey Roy’s frantic state of mind. This is a case of a director finding a way to convey things visually so that the story is enhanced. Watch the way the editing and camerawork have a lot of movement in the early scenes, only to settle down as Roy’s tics and compulsions disappear. Scott has made some great movies (Black Hawk Down, Alien), some bad movies (GI Jane, Hannibal) and some massively overrated movies (Gladiator); this one certainly ranks among his best.

I found that I really got pulled in by this film. As I said, it’s more about the characters than the con. This is especially true of the ending, which could have gone one way, but goes another instead. I walked out of the theater feeling like I knew the characters on screen. The ways they changed made sense to me. Matchstick Men is not one of those pictures where the people learn something simply because there needs to be a character arc. When the picture fades to black, I really believed that Roy and Angela had learned something not just about each other, but about themselves as well.

( 1/2 out of four)


Matchstick Men is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, violence, some sexual content and language. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.

Return to The Aisle Seat