“Matchstick Men” gambles that a movie about con artists, usually the cinematic equivalent of a highly strategic chess game, is elastic enough to focus on psychosomatic neuroses and a nascent father-daughter relationship blooming before our very eyes.
Director Ridley Scott and writers Nicholas and Ted Griffin (working from a Eric Garcia novel) want us to concentrate on characters and not the con; they push the swindle deep into the movie’s background while actors Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell and Alison Lohman perform heavy lifting in the emotional department, almost to the point we forget the movie is about con artists — which turns out to be the film’s own con.
The movie so successfully raises the emotional and psychological stakes in the first half that not all audiences may like the film’s reversion to con-artist form in the second. The con itself is preposterous and full of holes when we think back after the movie. A coda struggles to convince any viewers bummed out by this con job that everything turns out for the best some time later. Whether viewers will go for that or not, this is not a typical Ridley Scott movie, so Warner Bros.’ marketing department has its hands full.
When we first meet Roy (Cage) and Frank (Rockwell), the two small-potatoes grifters are working the phones and making house calls to sell a water filtration system for 10 times its value. Then we notice Roy’s neurotic tics, some bad enough he nearly blows a “sale.” Soon we realize his mind and body are at war with each other.
Roy is a nicotine-addicted, obsessive-compulsive, germ-phobic, quasi-suicidal agoraphobic who really should find another line of work — only he’s too damn good at it. Just ask his protege Frank, who is learning all he can from the master. Concerned about his friend’s increasingly neurotic behavior, triggered by the accidental loss of his tranquilizers, Frank sends Roy to a shrink. Once he has his patient stabilized, Dr. Klein (Bruce Altman) probes his past.
Quickly — maybe a little too quickly — the shrink hits the root of much of Roy’s psychosomatic ailments: a long-ago, troubled marriage and a possible child he has never met. A little digging by the psychiatrist turns up a 14-year-old daughter, Angela (Lohman), who wants to meet the dad she believed was either dead or in prison.
Their meeting forever changes Roy. In his own nutty way, for the first time in years he reaches out to another human being. And he digs fatherhood! When Angela discovers his calling and asks him to show her a few tricks of the trade, Roy balks. But he relents, of course, and she soon is involved in Roy and Frank’s latest con of a shady, crude businessman (Bruce McGill).
Ode to 'Paper Moon' Working on his first film in a while that doesn’t require extensive stunts, visual effects and an army of technicians, Scott clearly revels in directing top actors in out-and-out character studies. The film definitely draws a viewer into its strange, compelling interpersonal dynamics. Then, gradually, the dynamics of the con game take over, much of it predicated on the well-established psychology of its characters.
The film owes a clear debt to “Paper Moon” but lacks that film’s gallery of whimsical characters. The Griffin brothers write scenes with enough sharp dialogue and clear intent that we might wish the canvas were a little larger and the writers had dug a bit deeper. Ultimately, the movie settles for being clever rather than deep.
While set in an unnamed contemporary city, the film’s production design and music — Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Wayne Newton — is ’50s/early ’60s. The retro look exists for no discernible thematic reason but does give the movie a stylish kick. All technical credits are excellent, though an attempt to approximate Roy’s distorted point of view through weird lenses and jump cuts never quite works.