Review by Dustin Putman
2 stars out of 4
Up until its final ten minutes, "Matchstick Men," directed by Ridley
Scott (2001's "Black Hawk Down"), is a beautifully crafted motion
picture filled with endearing, sharply drawn characters and an ultra-smart,
non-flashy screenplay. Whereas most films about con men are all about
style, tricks and with no real substance, screenwriters Nicholas Griffin
and Ted Griffin (2001's "Ocean's Eleven") invigorate the genre by
wisely making it a character-driven piece about relationships that
just so happens to be set in the world of cons. For close to 110 minutes,
we grow to care about and love the people we have met and spent time
with. And then, with no warning, the rug is thrown out from under
us to make way for one of the most unnecessary, enraging, condescending
endings in recent memory.
Roy Waller (Nicolas Cage) is an obsessive compulsive con man with
agoraphobic symptoms who works alongside protege Frank Mercer (Sam
Rockwell) as they meticulously wheel and deal people into giving them
money. Filled with unwanted tics and fears, Roy goes to see a psychiatrist
about refilling a subscription for his illness and ends up opening
up to him about his past. Through this, he learns of his estranged
14-year-old daughter, Angela (Alison Lohman), whom he has never met
but who wants to get to know him. With summer break in full swing,
Angela practically moves in with Roy and falls in love with the father
she never had. Eventually, Roy is grudgingly teaching Angela the tricks
of his trade as he and Frank start work on their next con.
First and foremost, "Matchstick Men" is a wonder of brilliant lead
performances, each one breathing distinctive life into their fresh
roles. Coming off his Oscar-nominated role in 2002's best film, "Adaptation,"
Nicolas Cage is note-perfect as Roy Waller, faithfully gracing him
with all the physical tics and personal flaws that afflict him. When
Roy discovers the joy of being a parent, he yearns to move out of
the con business but isn't sure how. Cage is at the top of his game
in every scene, garnering big laughs when they are called for and
an emotional depth and originality of character one rarely sees in mainstream Hollywood.
Matching him every step of the way is 23-year-old Alison Lohman (2002's
"White Oleander"), who is called up to play someone almost ten years
younger than she and, amazingly, makes it completely believable. With
the looks, speech, and mannerisms of a young teenager wise beyond
her years but with an inexperienced naivete underneath the surface,
Lohman hits her role of Angela squarely on the head and makes it her
own. Having only one other major lead role under her belt, Lohman
easily cements herself as one of the most versatile and talented young
actresses working today.
The father-daughter relationship between Roy and Angela, loosely
recalling the one between Ryan O'Neal and Tatum O'Neal in 1973's "Paper
Moon," is the heart and soul of "Matchstick Men." In the ways that
Roy and Angela relate to one another, first with a yearning hesitancy
and then with an unmistakable casualness, and in the way that Roy
occasionally loses his temper and says things to Angela without meaning
them, this is one of the more lovely cinematic parent-child depictions
in quite some time.
Filling out the lead trio, Sam Rockwell (2001's "Heist") exudes the
same quirky coolness he is getting to be known for as Frank Mercer.
Frank does not have as much screentime as Cage or Lohman, but in the
way he looks up to Roy while at the same time having to act as his
guiding light through Roy's rough patches, he is an indelible character
who makes his every moment count. If the sign of a charismatic actor
is their ability to brighten every scene in which they appear, then
Rockwell has this gift in spades.
Had "Matchstick Men" followed on the same course it had set up through
its climax, then it would undoubtedly be one of the stronger motion
pictures of 2003. Unfortunately, director Ridley Scott betrays his
audience and the time they have invested in this story for no apparent
reason other than to offer a surprising twist ending. It cannot be
denied that the concluding ten minutes are, indeed, unexpected, but
they are also gimmick-ridden and ludicrous, putting a severe damper
on everything that has come before. The characters, as well as the
viewers, are not treated with the respect they deserve, and we instantly
stop caring because of it.
As wonderful as the vast majority of "Matchstick Men" is, it is just
as abysmal in its cumulative effect, transforming an innovative, heartfelt,
purely human tale into one that is as shallow as every con film that
has come before it. For the sheer promise it held for so long, and
its jarring plunge into maddening mediocrity by the end credits roll,
"Matchstick Men" may just rank as the most disappointing film of the year.
Copyright © 2003 Dustin Putman