Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:56 - Released 9/12/03

Matchstick Men is the latest from director Ridley Scott, who has given us such memorable products as Alien, Legend, Bladerunner, and more recently, Gladiator and Black Hawk Down. Like those, this film is distinguished by impressive visuals and a brisk pace, but frankly, with his talent and that of his cast (Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell, and Alison Lohman), I would have expected better. Matchstick Men isn’t bad; it’s just average, but when you’ve built a reputation for excellence, sometimes average is a bit of a disappointment. Anyway the fault here lies mostly with writers Ted Griffin (Ocean’s Eleven) and his brother Nicholas, who together adapted the screenplay from the novel by Eric Garcia. Garcia’s story is reasonably clever and quirky, if a bit implausible, but the Griffins’ screenplay seems to overemphasize the implausibility and downplay the cleverness, forcing the actors to say and do things that emit just the slightest hint of rat odor far too early for the film’s own good. Smelling a rat is perfectly proper for a con caper movie like this, where one isn’t supposed to know who is conning whom until the final reel, but things aren’t supposed to get really ratalicious until late in the film’s second half.

Cage plays Roy Waller, a con man from Los Angeles whose method of ripping people off (a combination of telemarketing fraud and door-to-door swindling) wouldn’t be all that notable were it not for the fact that he suffers from agoraphobia, obsessive/compulsive disorder, and what seems to be a mild form of Tourette’s syndrome, all of which cause him to have a need for extreme order in his life lest he begin twitching, winking, and/or grunting uncontrollably. His ability to hold it together while bilking a retirement-aged couple out of their money, in the midst of such crippling confidence-breakers as floating dust particles, filthy pets, and soiled shoes being allowed to touch the floor, is mainly thanks to two things: the undying support of his partner, Frank Mercer (Rockwell), and the pills supplied to him by his psychiatrist (Bruce Altman). During several of his twitchy therapy sessions, we learn that Roy is 14 years divorced and may or may not have a child out there somewhere. His treatment is soon put to the test when a teenage girl named Angela (Lohman) appears, not only claiming to be his long-lost daughter, but asking if she can stay with him for a while as she and her mother have had a falling out. This of course has a mind-blowing effect on Roy, since her casual habits undermine his carefully ordered routine and besmirch his painfully immaculate suburban home. Things are further complicated when Angela, a talented grifter herself, learns about the big con Roy and Frank are about to pull on a wealthy snob (Bruce McGill), and asks if she can help out.

There’s a lot of fake laughing and fake crying in this movie, and not all of it is supposed to be fake; director Scott should have done something about this, but he is known more for shotmaking than interpersonal relationships. Lohman, who was astounding in White Oleander, is clearly struggling with the text; her delivery is as believable as she can manage it but the faulty dialogue makes it difficult for her. Cage’s neurotic affectations are fascinating to watch, but he too is burdened with unrealistic wordplay and a sometimes laughably simplistic story line. Rockwell, meanwhile, is the only one who shines throughout, but that may be only because he is underused. His charisma is sorely missed during the central portion of the film during which Roy and Angela are having their long, awkward bonding session.

Matchstick Men is ultimately a slightly tarnished treasure; with the combined talent of its production team, it could have been great, but because of its clumsy writing style it has to settle for just being good. ***½

Copyright 2003 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

Current | Archives | Oscars | About | E-Mail