Matchstick Men
review by Dan Lybarger, 12 September 2003

Normally known for making films with large sets, eye-popping special effects and bone-crunching action, it's nice to know that Sir Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator and Black Hawk Down) can handle human stories with roughly the same skill that he orchestrates spectacle.

Roy Harrell (Nicolas Cage) may feel bad about being a con artist, but he takes a lot of pride in the fact that he handles the job exceptionally well. When forced to admit how he makes a crooked living, he hedges and then baldly states what he does with a loud emphasis on "artist." Roy and his partner Frank Mercer (Sam Rockwell) have such a finely tuned routine that they can hit the same victim twice without being detected.

The problem for Roy is that the same traits that enable him to successfully hoodwink a mark twice make his personal life a nightmare. Roy has to keep his home clean to the point of sterility. Visitors, in the rare moments when they do come, can't wear shoes on his immaculately maintained rug. He also has an aversion to sunlight that makes him practically a mole when he's not on the job. It gets worse when his medication runs out. Roy tries to hit up a new shrink for pills, but to Roy's regret his new psychiatrist (Bruce Altman) is more interested in digging through his psyche than loading him with meds.

In the process venting to poor doctor, Roy discovers that he has a teenage daughter he's never met. Angela (Alison Lohman) is a giddy rambunctious bundle of energy who also shows up at home unannounced and leaves messes. She also seems to give her newfound dad a sense of satisfaction he's been missing for a long time. She's fascinated by dad's work and, to his glee, takes to it easily.

Whereas a lot of filmmakers might have Roy absorbed with guilt over his daughter's decision to follow in his crooked footsteps, Scott and screenwriters Nicholas Griffin and Ted Griffin, working from Eric Garcia's book, have Roy wavering between minor pangs of guilt and gushing admiration of Angela's budding skill. This more complicated approach allows Cage, in a role he was born to play, to exercise his fondness for quirky characters and physical ticks without reducing the tale into an emotional freak show. Cage thankfully keeps Roy human enough to keep him interesting and even likable in his darkest moments. The flamboyant Rockwell serves as an able counterpart, brashly complementing Roy's withdrawal. Lohman, however, is something of a revelation. Despite being a decade older than her character, she's completely convincing as a teen and achieves just the right blend of innocence and lethal curiosity.

The Griffin brothers -- Ted scripted Steven Soderbergh's Oceans Eleven --  expectedly churn out some tasty dialogue (Angela: “You don't seem like a bad guy.” Roy: ”That's why I'm so good at it”.), but their real achievement is taking story elements like having a crook see a psychiatrist (as in The Sopranos and Analyze This) and still make them seem fresh.

Scott for his part doesn't let his smaller canvas cramp his sense of style. Having started in commercials, Scott uses color and sound with remarkable finesse, accenting Roy's sense of isolation. His primarily Rat Pack era song soundtrack (the newest tune is an ‘80's entry from Roxy Music) and Hans Zimmer's organ score put the viewer in Roy's socks nicely.

What's most interesting about Matchstick Men is that Roy's condition is not explicitly described as obsessive-compulsive disorder, but alert viewers can figure it out on their own. Scott and company have approached the film intelligently and have thankfully credited their viewers with having brains as well.

Directed by:
Ridley Scott

Nicolas Cage
Sam Rockwell
Alison Lohman
Bruce Altman
Bruce McGill
Jenny O'Hara
Steve Eastin
Beth Grant
Sheila Kelley
Fran Kranz
Tim Kelleher
Nigel Gibbs

Written by:
Nicholas Griffin
Ted Griffin

PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be inappropriate for
children under 13.






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