Matchstick Men

(2003) *** Pg-13
116 min. distributer. Director: Ridley Scott. Cast: Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell, Alison Lohman, Bruce Altman, Bruce McGill.

If Matchstick Men doesn't quite reach a level of stylish substance, it at least achieves substantive style. In more cutesy directorial hands and with lesser acting talent, Matchstick Men might be easy to dismiss, but with Ridley Scott guiding Nicholas Cage, Alison Lohman, and Sam Rockwell through a con-artist movie more about "coming clean" than the con itself, Matchstick Men puts on a hard sell.

Cage's Roy Waller obsessive-compulsively keeps his world clean. Roy lives in a shimmery, pastel, faux-luxurious suburbia, painted by Scott with a subdued aqua-marine palette that suggests Roy needs to come up for air more often. When Roy's buddy and partner Frank Mercer (Rockwell) gets Roy out of his apartment, the smooth-talking duo execute short cons on unsuspecting saps. Complications come in the form of an imposing psychiatrist (who will only trade Roy his beloved meds for analytic couch time) and Angela (Lohman), a teenage daughter Roy always suspected he had but never met. Soon, Roy is healthily and happily sharing his life with Angela, which riles his still-hungry con-man partner.

Rockwell's typically loose and slap-happy performance is a gas, and the camera loves Lohman's sharply-defined mask of emotion and intellect. But an in-sync Cage and Scott make the film. In another expertly-modulated performance, Cage comically alternates Roy's commanding "professional" demeanor with a series of self-destructive tics and drawled "uhhhhhh"s in answer to Angela's pointed questions. Scott provides clever, stuttered amplifications of sight and sound to reflect Roy's agoraphobic anxiety. The director also arranges Roy and Frank as a bizarro-world version of Frank and Dean, the mock-smooth Rat Pack duo (Scott sagely chooses Frank's "Summer Wind" as the film's elegaic theme). With a full catalog of late-50s/early 60s swinger's music--including Bobby Darin and Mantovani and His Orchestra--swelling around Cage's square anti-hero, Scott effectively turns up the whimsy.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise, as screenwriter Ted Griffin recently penned the Rat Pack remake Ocean's Eleven (this time, Griffin--working with brother Nicholas--adapted from Eric Garcia's novel). Matchstick Men indulges popular shtick--Roy's OCD feels like a writer's actor-friendly reaction to Tony Shalhoub's popular TV detective Monk, and twisty heist movies are oh-so-in vogue in today's Hollywood. In fact, Matchstick Men succeeds more as a cracked but heartfelt domestic drama between Roy and Angela than anything else. Like Roy's preferred long-con patter in the movie, Scott's strategy is to keep it simple, if offbeat, the destination mattering more than the journey. As in any good character piece, Roy must conclude, in the end, "I see things differently now."

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