Matchstick Men (2003)


Conman movies like to be clever. The trick is that the basic They’re supposed to fool you. The hitch is that you know they’re all about tricks, so if they can surprise you at any point, they’ve done something special. Matchstick Men, directed by Ridley Scott and adapted by Nicholas and Ted Griffin from Eric Garcia’s novel, uses a very peculiar trick: it’s a family melodrama dressed up like a conman movie.

On its surface, this melodrama is as sappy as they come. L.A.-based smalltime conman Roy (Nicolas Cage) is feeling more and more fidgety, indicated by a widening array of tics and Tourette’s discharges, choking, hissing, and swearing. His tics emerge forcefully during a con he’s tag-teaming with his protégé-partner Frank (Sam Rockwell, excellent in what seems an abbreviated role): the victim-to-be opens a door and sweaty Roy almost collapses under the threat of air from the “outside.”

When he accidentally dumps his unidentified anti-tic pills down the garbage disposal, Roy’s paroxysms go into overdrive: at once anal and out of control, he scrubs his table legs with toothbrushes and compulsively repeats specific rituals (shutting every door three times, insisting that no one wear shoes on his carpet), but he also eats tuna from the can, chain-smokes (while he’s scrubbing), and keeps his wads o’ cash (wrapped in plastic) stowed inside a large china bulldog in his living room. In Cage’s hands, such devices too often become grand gestures: if Roy isn’t quite so broad as his turns in Vampire’s Kiss (1989) or Leaving Las Vegas (1995), the character does suggest that Cage has been told once too often that twitching is effective acting.

That said, this is one of his more restrained and more consistent versions of this performance; Roy grows on you, and like those around him, you might begin to overlook the spasms and appreciate his efforts to work around them. His special sense for how cons work emerges in part from his daily swindle — either that he is “normal” or that he is inexplicably spastic, depending on how you read Roy’s (as opposed to Cage’s) performance. And he’s a good teacher. “For some folks,” he rehearses before using the line during a job, “Money is like a foreign film without the subtitles.” He believes that, and makes his marks believe it too.

When he turns visibly desperate without his pills, Roy visits a shrink ostensibly chosen at random, one Dr. Klein (Bruce Altman). A couple of therapy sessions later, Roy discovers he has a 14-year-old daughter, Angela (24-year-old Alison Lohman, who is excellent, though she has to burst into girly tears a few too many times), the result of a long over and apparently painful relationship. Thinking that he needs to put right his messy past, Roy seeks out Angela, whom he first spots skateboarding along the sidewalk.

This scene, at once simple and intense, shows Scott’s legendary attention to visual and audio detail, whatever genres he’s mixing. The distinctive thunk-thunk-thunk of Angela’s board punctuates his first look at her from behind his smoke-clouded windshield: earnest and pigtailed, she appears the ideal antidote to his corrupt and anxious existence, but Roy is frozen with fear, the camera capturing his disorientation as he scrunches down in close, low-angled frames. Their first meeting is predictably rocky, but Angela warms to him, understanding beyond her years that he’s perpetually harried and self-absorbed, but a decent guy beneath the excesses.

Angry at her mom one night, Angela takes the bus to Roy’s place, expecting that she’ll just hang out and watch tv while he attends a “business meeting.” There are two problems with this pseudo-reunited family scenario: Roy doesn’t own a tv, and his meeting is at a strip club, where he and Frank are setting up the scuzzy businessman Chuck (Bruce McGill) for a really big score. No matter. Angela is determined to forge a father-daughter bond, even if she has to make it up as she goes along. And since Roy is essentially incapable of taking responsibility for himself, let alone a child who prefers ice cream to eggs for breakfast, her sheer will needs to go a long way.

She’s game. On learning what Roy does for a living, Angela does the movie-daughter thing: she asks him to teach her a con, threatening him by reeling off specifics concerning a recent sexual encounter: he’s so undone by the thought of her intimate activities that he agrees to her demands, that is, he suddenly looks like an extraordinarily easy mark.

Still, even Angela is at the mercy of Roy’s contradictory frenzies, as these shape the film’s bizarre emotional logic. He’s a distressingly ideal dad, so in need of his daughter, learning to accept his own imperfections as he sees them in her. And yet, their cutesy balance is increasingly unlikely and unsatisfactory: she takes him bowling, he includes her in a high-stakes con; she whines, he puts her name on his security deposit account; she cries, he agrees to quit the trade.

All the while, he’s making eyes at the supermarket cashier (Sheila Kelley) who remarkably resembles his much bemoaned ex (Melora Walters). This developing “relationship” insinuates that Roy is making progress toward emotional maturity, or at least being able to introduce himself to a pretty girl, but it feels peripheral to the conman movie, which you know has to come to its own fierce and (of course) enlightening end. Conmen always learn moral-unto-social lessons in their movies, their epiphanies conveyed via kinetically cunning plot twists that you supposedly can’t see coming (but actually can, if you’re paying attention even slightly). The fusion of Matchstick Men‘s usual conman life lesson with the father-daughter business is awkward and rushed by film’s end. The pieces come together precisely, but sentimentally.