Matchstick Men
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   J O H N S O N

While Ridley Scott isn't known for directing comedies, he did indeed score with one of the best off-beat dramas of the '90s — Thelma and Louise, which mixed good doses of comedy with tragedy. So Scott isn't completely new to the comedy genre. But his name remains mostly tied to action movies such as Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator.

Now, in Matchstick Men, he tackles something else entirely — a high-pitched drama of con-game manipulations mixed with the broadly played comedy of a father-daughter relationship. Nicolas Cage plays a con man named Roy who has a serious obsessive/compulsive disorder (a la Jack Nicholson in As Good As it Gets) who suddenly discovers he has a teenage daughter named Angela (Alison Lohman). We see he is so troubled by his estranged relationship with his wife and daughter that it becomes manifested in his behavior. He compulsively cleans every inch of his apartment, and all doors or windows must be opened in a repetition of three — open ("un"), close, open ("deux"), close, open ("trey," he says). In spite of his avocation, in spite of the fact that he makes a living by bilking people out of money, we sense his extreme vulnerability and this helps him win over the audience in spite of his status as a criminal.

The movie succeeds or fails based on how involved you become in Cage's efforts to form a relationship with his daughter. I have to admit, however, that I was bored by this part of the movie. Not that I'm an action movie junky (I'm not) and I couldn't wait for an action movie plot to take over (I wasn't). But there is little at stake here for the daughter. She's a mannequin, a pretty, perky non character. For the father-daughter relationship to work, we have to understand what is at stake for her, and the movie only offers generic faux problems. In other words, nothing out of the ordinary. And that's exactly the problem: she's utterly ordinary and the filmmaking lacks the attention to detail that might make an ordinary character interesting.

Most of the father-daughter scenes consist of Cage reacting in horror to something that Lohman has done. She doesn't take off her shoes before walking across his carpet. She hangs her underwear in the bathroom. She opens the Venetian blinds and lets in light. But because of the movie's structure — I can't reveal much about this — we can't experience what she's going through. She has to remain an enigma. I question this decision. I wish the filmmakers had let us in on the surprise. Surprises by their very nature are cheap. They work once and then the trick is over. By letting us beneath her fašade, we would have been given the chance to see what she's going through. In other words, we would have been allowed to see what she's actually getting out of the relationship. As is, however, we don't know who she is. We don't see her with other people — which because of the movie's structure can't be allowed. But this cheapens her and makes her a less rounded character.

To the movie's credit, though, once the con-game plot kicks in and Roy (Cage) becomes busy working a customer, along with his partner Frank (Sam Rockwell), the movie becomes fairly gripping, although it's also very familiar (thanks to movies such as The Grifters). The movie gains much of its sense of suspense simply from the fact that con man Roy is always on the verge of succumbing to his pathological obsessions. During a con, he nearly breaks down when a door is opened and fresh air flows in. The fact that a nutcase like Roy plies such an unusual trade (provided you can buy this conceit) provides for edge-of-your-seat suspense. While Roy is frequently a basket case, he can come to life when plotting a con. The excitement of planning a new con invigorates him. Here is where the movie really soars. These scenes are so wonderfully off beat and unusual that the father-daughter stuff becomes all the more bland and unconvincing — like a coy television situation comedy. Matchstick Men is a mixed bag — the con-game scenes are superb and Nicolas Cage delivers an outstanding performance, but the father-daughter scenes are poorly conceived.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Warner Bros.
Movie Web site: Matchstick Men



Photo credits: © 2003 Warner Bros. Pictures. All rights reserved.