Matchstick Men

Matchstick Men PosterMatchstick Man: n. 1. A figure or drawing of a man, made up of sticks. 2. A confidence artist, so called because they put on personae that are thin and easily disposable.

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.

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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.

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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.

Rating: 4 Stars

About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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23 Responses to Matchstick Men

  1. Scophi says:

    Agree with this review. I found this to be Cage’s best work to date.

    I know that actors take on a persona when working a new role, but sometimes a character’s mannerisms alone require study and dedication. To me, this is like taking on two roles at once. While Cage’s Waller is more subtle than Hoffman’s Babbitt or Foster’s Nell, it’s enough to show that Cage does have talent…even if he chooses not to tap into it regularly.

    This is the movie I recommend to people who think that Cage is just an accidental actor whose single ability is shouting his lines at the camera all day.

    • I think it really helps that this film is playing to Cage’s strengths — yes, he’s still acting crazy, but it’s crazy with a purpose.

      • Scophi says:

        I just checked him on IMDb and saw that despite people’s sometimes critical appraisal of Cage, he’s certainly in high-demand. He currently has 11 films in pre- or post-production…and 2 in the rumored stage. That’s impressive.

        • Oh, he’s unquestionably still a big name actor. That’s part of why people rag on him so much, I think — there’s good Nic Cage, and there’s bad Nic Cage, and there’s off-the-wall Nic Cage, and you just never quite know what you’re going to get. But there’s something that keeps bringing people back no matter what.

        • Scophi says:

          Agreed. Have you seen The Bad Lieutenant? Uughh! The movie by which I rate all other bad movies. (Well, that and any Quentin Tarantino film.) But he has also done entertaining films like The Family Man, National Treasure (1 and 2), Gone in Sixty Seconds, and so on. He is definitely up and down. Unlike some other actors, I won’t go see a movie just because he’s in it.

          I think the difference between him and some other actors is that he doesn’t hold out for the great roles. He just wants to act and takes whatever decent offers come his way. I have no way of knowing that for sure, but that’s what it seems like.

        • I haven’t seen Bad Lieutenant yet, but it’s been recommended to me before as a so-bad-it’s-good film. I agree that National Treasure and Gone in 60 Seconds are decent enough films.

          I’d agree that it seems like Cage is one of those who just wants to act and takes whatever comes his way. Christopher Walken, Samuel L. Jackson and, lately, Liam Neeson all seem to be the same way.

  2. Great review Morgan! This film took me completely by surprise. I really didn’t know what to expect going into it but really liked it. It’s one of the best things I’ve seen Cage in but it’s probably one of his least talked about films. Everyone only seems to talk about the rubbish stuff now.

    • Unfortunately, that’s because there’s just so much of the rubbish. 😛

      But yes, it’s always good to see the films where an actor really is putting in a good performance, and Matchstick Men is one of Cage’s.

  3. le0pard13 says:

    Yeah, this is an underrated gem by Ridley Scott. Good spotlight to throw on it, Morgan. Well done.

  4. Dan Heaton says:

    It’s great to hear a positive response to this film. I caught up with a few years ago and really liked it, and I’ve been surprised to hear so many lukewarm responses to it. Cage and Lohman are both great, and it’s hard to go wrong with Sam Rockwell. I think it’s one of Cage’s most interesting performances. It shows his ability to play neurotic characters without going way over the top.

    • I wonder if the lukewarm response may have been due to differing expectations… the marketing I’ve seen for it seems to put the focus on the con job rather than the relationship issues, whereas the movie is more the other way around.

  5. Funny you mention Lohman was 23… I remmeber being really surprised by that, I would have sworn she was a teen here.

    I like this movie a lot! One of Ridley Scott’s smaller, less appreciated movies, but still one in the plus column of his filmography. Cage is legitimately good here, as is Rockwell, who’s ALWAYS great 😀

    Nice pick to spotlight CO.

    • Yeah, Lohman is really convincing as a teenager… works a lot better than most “young adult teenager” castings.

      I wouldn’t say Rockwell is always great — I didn’t like him in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind — but he does pretty well here.

  6. CMrok93 says:

    Great review Morgan. Great con-man story, but also a very good one that deals with emotions and humans are with one another. Still, it was a total blast the whole way that showed Cage having a whole bunch of fun.

    • Yeah, Cage was really in his element here, wasn’t he? And I was impressed with the way his emotions really felt natural and appropriate throughout the film, particularly in the ending.

  7. Great review here, Morgan. I agree. This is one of Cage’s best and it is complimented by Cage’s flair and craziness (if you will). I own this movie and enjoy it. The end is so fitting given the story, its title, and its characters.

    fantastic review of a film I enjoy.

  8. Jaina says:

    Funnily, one of my favourite Ridley Scott films. It’s just so unassuming. When you watch it you get drawn in. Cage is fantastic, like you said. One of his better more recent roles. Shame he can’t go back to doing more films like this.

  9. I absolutely loved this movie and you did it justice in your review.kudos

  10. Pingback: Same Song, Different Movie: This Town by Lee Hazlewood | It Rains… You Get Wet

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