Ridley Scott’s 2003 film, Matchstick Men, naturally enough is focused on a con man and a long con. But like a long con, it doesn’t necessarily go where one expects. Nicolas Cage puts in one of his better bugnuts-crazy performances as Roy Waller, a con man who is highly accomplished but even more highly neurotic. He opens and closes doors three times every time he uses them, and an open window causes him to almost have a seizure from the aggravation of it. With his partner Frank (Sam Rockwell), he’s been scamming little old ladies into buying overpriced water filtration systems. But Frank wants something more than the small scams… he has a wealthy target (Bruce McGill) who he believes they can bilk for hundreds of thousands of dollars. But Roy’s neuroses threaten to disrupt even the small scams.
At last, a director who makes good use of Cage’s neural misfires.
In an effort to bring his senior partner back to some semblance of functionality, Frank talks Roy into going into therapy. Roy initially goes along with it simply to get more pills to control his tics, but Dr. Klein (Bruce Altman) succeeds in getting Roy to open up a little bit, including about the regret he has with his wife leaving him 15 years before. A few sessions later, Klein drops a bombshell on Roy: as Roy had requested him, he got in touch with Roy’s ex-wife. She wants nothing to do with him… but her and Roy’s daughter, whom he has never known, does. And a few days later, Angela, played by Alison Lohman, shows up on Roy’s front door.
Telling a relationship story about con artists can be a tricky thing. The theme lends itself to dark comedies and comic dramas (this falls somewhere in-between), but there’s a balance that needs to be found between dedicating time to the relationship and showing the con in action. A con artist who doesn’t con isn’t a con artist — and isn’t terribly interesting. Matchstick Men succeeds in this balancing act both by showing Roy and Frank’s progress on their long con, and by having Roy gradually induct Angela into the world of confidence games.
Probably not what the creators of “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” had in mind.
The film has a fairly small cast of main characters, though a large number of minor characters flit in and out. Bruce Altman comes across as a convincing and amiable psychologist, one who isn’t quite gullible enough to believe that Roy is an “antique dealer”, but who generally puts that question aside for the sake of his patient. Bruce McGill is a lot of fun to watch as the mark, Chuck Frechette; greedy and corrupt, and prone to some wild ranting of his own when the situation calls for it. Sam Rockwell’s performance is a bit understated compared to some of the other characters, as he’s supposed to be more in control of himself, and he comes across as being just slick enough to be a small-time con man, not quite slick enough to be in the big time yet.
But the stars are Alison Lohman and Nicolas Cage as the daughter-father duo. Lohman is rather old to be playing a teenager (23 at the time of filming), but it doesn’t show in her performance. She bounces between moods convincingly as a temperamental teen, cheerful one minute, and feeling abandoned by the world in the next. And Cage, who is sometimes at his most entertaining when he’s at his craziest, gets to direct his mad acting in a limited and useful way as the highly neurotic Roy.
The film is alternately comic and charming, with occasional moments that are depressing or exciting. It hits a lot of bases in a few hours. And like a con job itself, it’s not entirely what it might seem at first glance; people expecting a straightforward drama or a straightforward con movie aren’t going to find either. And yet it succeeds to a degree at being both.