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Matchstick Men   B-

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: Nicholas Griffin, Ted Griffin (based on the novel by Eric Garcia)
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell, Alison Lohmann, Bruce McGill, Bruce Altman, Steve Eastin, Jerry Hauck.

Review by Rob Vaux

A few months ago, during a review of the movie Confidence, I opined that con capers can be ruined if they give the game away too early. Matchstick Men, a similar film with an identical problem, confirms that hypothesis while offering decidedly different compensations. Like may of its ilk, it thinks it's more clever than it really is, taking us for a ride whose destination is too depressingly clear. The odd thing is, while the trickery ultimately falls apart, the stuff that happens in between is more than capable of holding our interest. This is a con movie where the con utterly fails... but everything else succeeds.

The name comes from hustler vernacular, an in-the-know affectation that Matchstick Men loves to flash before our eyes. Its smugness might have been irritating were it not offset by a cool, breezy tone that marks a sharp departure from director Ridley Scott's usual operatic grandeur. With Frank Sinatra on the soundtrack and keen dialogue on the actors' lips, the first two-thirds go down as smooth as a fresh cocktail. Before we know it, our fingers are snapping, our toes are twitching, and we're ready to follow our two slick protagonists to the ends of the earth.

It helps that said protagonists are portrayed by a spot-on couple of stars: Nicholas Cage, as an obsessive-compulsive wreck named Roy whose composure shatters the instant his scams are through; and Sam Rockwell, as his laid-back partner whose smile shows the wrong kind of oil. Both men have played roles like this before, and both know how to tease the pleasures from their respective duties. Cage has the harder job, sporting a series of bizarre facial tics that could easily have grown wearisome (Roy spends hours scrubbing his windows and eats nothing but tuna out of a can); but he pulls it off with dash and finesse, charming us before our hackles have a chance to rise. Rockwell, too, quickly sets us at ease, though his character is more adrift than perhaps he should be.

In any case, they're a likable couple of cads and Scott takes a relaxed air to running them through the expected paces. Their structured world of phone scams and medium-length shakedowns is knocked for a loop by the arrival of Roy's long-lost daughter (Alison Lohman), a pseudo-street waif with a nose for the very trouble at which they excel. Initially, she's more of a distraction than an asset, but as Roy slowly warms to her presence in his life, he finds himself pondering higher issues than the dirt on his carpet or his next source of cash. Lohman (an adult actress playing a child) resembles nothing so much as a miniature Geena Davis, and her combination of cunning and naivete eerily evokes that actress's turn in Thelma and Louise. She and Cage are wonderful together, their scenes clever and touching without being maudlin.

Would that Matchstick Men contented itself with their marvelous dynamic. Unfortunately, its structure suggests the need for a Big Score in the middle of it all, and the filmmakers are unable to resist the bait. Our larcenous trio soon hook themselves a fish (Bruce McGill), whom they plan to rob blind through a typically elaborate series of deceptions. It proves serviceable for awhile, but the signs of switchbacks rise fairly early and can be spotted too easily. By the time it comes together, Matchstick Men has descended into tired ground, throwing out angry men with guns and bluster that far too many movies have displayed before. The results shatter the delightful mood and leave a sour taste that belies the film's early scenes. It still might have worked had Scott and company stuck to their guns, but -- as if in apology -- they follow it all with a strangely upbeat denouement that tries vainly to smooth the hard edges. Without the courage of its convictions, it can't help but feel like a cop-out.

Thankfully, Matchstick Men has more up its sleeve than that, and those who don't care to nitpick will still have a fine time. Its domestic humor and emotional strength endure where its street-smart snow job falters, and the flaws in its climax are easy to overlook in the face of its other assets. Above all, it demonstrates that Scott can handle lighter material, and the prospects of another film of this sort from him are very encouraging. Matchstick Men works a hell of a lot better without the marked cards it clearly treasures. It's a blessing that it still works as well as it does.

Review published 09.11.2003.

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