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MATCHSTICK MEN

My sister tells me there is a tendency in abnormal psych classes for students to start thinking they have whatever they are studying.

Many of you have experienced this: you see a movie, and come out of it wishing you could do what the characters do on-screen: whether it’s fighting with Light Sabers, being a spy, or just kicking Clubber Lang’s ass while Eye of the Tiger plays in the background.

Enter Matchstick Men, the new Comedy/Dram/Film Noir/I’m not sure what the hell it is from director Ridley Scott. I’m not sure what you’ll feel when you’re done watching this.

To start with, Nicolas Cage is brilliant. I thought he was fantastic last year in Adaptation, and would have had no problem if he’d won the Oscar. In Matchstick, he’s just as good, in a slightly more bent way. Cage plays Roy Waller, a gifted Con Man (or Con Artist, or Matchstick Man, if you prefer; hence the title), who is limited to small-time cons by his crippling neuroses.

I personally think Cage does a better job here of getting to the heart of Obsessive Compulsive (O/C) Disorder than Jack Nicholson did in As Good as it Gets. The movie opens slowly, allowing us to see Roy Waller as a man trapped within a prison of his own making. Cage underplays it, a strange way to show obsessive personality, but I think the subtlety makes is all that more alarming: that he’s so close to being normal, and yet so far away. Also, when Roy does lose it a time or two, the impact is all the greater.

That’s one third of the story. The second part deals with the con games that Roy runs with his younger partner and protégé, Frank Mercer (played by Sam Rockwell). This story arc is also presented slowly, to allow us to get our feet wet without jumping right into the intricacies of con-artist jargon and fancy footwork. This part of the movie is also handled flawlessly, more than I can even say here, and quite enjoyable to watch.

The third part of the story trumps these first two, though, and involves (some of) Roy’s reasons for being so messed up emotionally. After running out of pills he uses to control his behavior, Roy is forced to go to a real doctor, who won’t prescribe more medicine until Roy talks about his feelings. It turns out Roy left a wife 15 years ago with, “A black eye and a bun in the oven.” And while he’s a different person now, he always wonders what he left behind.

With the help of the doctor Roy finds out that he indeed does have a 14-year-old daughter, Angela. Enter Allison Lohman. If there is an Oscar nomination to come out of this movie—even more than Cage’s brilliant performance—it is Allison Lohman. This is the first chance I’ve gotten to see her (outside of Fox’s short-lived Pasadena), and I was quite impressed. Her character Angela is like so many who grew up without a dad: troubled, and desperate for her father’s love.

She and Roy take to each other, like, well, a father and daughter who haven’t had a chance to annoy the hell out of each other. It’s strange, that in a movie with something really cool (con games) and something horribly fascinating (a man crippled by his own making) that it is the father-daughter aspect of this film that is the most intriguing and compelling. You’d think coming into this movie that you might exit it thinking you’re O/C or wanting to be a grifter. But instead, I think I wanted a daughter to teach things to!

That’s how the movie comes together, through Angela. She comes to live with Roy for a weekend (in what can only seem like a Hollywood plot contrivance, but go with it), and invades Roy’s well-ordered world as only a messed up 14-year old girl can.

To understand this, you have to see this house. Martha Stewart and Better Homes and Gardens couldn’t get a house this clean. I mean; the carpet alone is a character in this film, with as much attention as Roy pays it. About the only odd thing is that Roy chain-smokes, something that seems counter-intuitive at first for such a germ freak. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that O/C isn’t supposed to make sense, or people wouldn’t do it, and besides, the smoking gives Roy something to do with his hands.

Anyway, the daughter completely unsettles Roy’s world, and this eventually leads to her discovering his criminal vocation, and of course wanting to be a part of it. This is the part that made me want to have a daughter: watching Roy teach Angela the ins and outs of conning people. Such a great chemistry there.

I haven’t really talked about the plot, and there’s a reason for that, which I’ll get to. While I stall, let me say Ridley Scott does a great job here. He’s never been known for his characterization, but in Matchstick Men the characters hum and tick (or tic, in the case of Roy) like people you might actually see in the real world. Besides Frank the partner, there is the doctor and this guy Frechette (whom Roy and Frank are set on making a big score off of), who are great, giving structure and believability to allow us time to focus on Roy and his new adventures in father-hood.

The shots are clean and crisp, and the locations minimal enough not to distract from the story but still help out when needed. (Even a strip-club scene is low-key, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on how you’re looking at it.)

But that brings us to the plot, or more precisely, the ending. One of the reasons I haven’t really told you what happens is because this is a movie about con men, so the less said the better, if you follow me. You’ll just have to see for yourself.

The two main problems I have, though, are that Scott can’t quite decide exactly what kind of movie he wants to make. At first it seems like a comedy, albeit an offbeat one, but at times that changes, and we’re talking complete 180s. If that were it, though, I could have lived with it.

But then there’s the ending.

I’m handicapped, because I really can’t say anything about what happens, so I don’t spoil any surprises. But, I can tell you that there is an epilogue, that begins “One year later,” and it is this part of the movie that keeps me from unreservedly recommending it.

How can I explain this? Imagine that at the end of Titanic, instead of that dream Rose has, we go back to after Rose was rescued, and see Jack get off a boat, because he was rescued too, and they secretly live happily together.

Would have changed your entire idea of what the movie meant, wouldn’t it? Well, perhaps not that dramatically, but the ending of Matchstick Men seems to want to change everything they did up to that point. I understand why: there is no way the Studio big-wigs would have let them get away with the first ending—which is uncompromisingly brilliant, I might add—and forced them to add this denouement.

But I might be over dramatizing things a bit. The people I saw the film with didn’t seem to have a problem, and the audience seemed pleased. So, it might just be me. And, up until that point, I completely enjoyed at least 95 % of the movie. So, go ahead and see Matchstick Men, but don’t get mad at me if you’re left with a slightly bitter taste after such a fine meal.

Hyperion’s Ratings (Based on #121. If you’re not familiar with this, write and ask me for it)

Skepticism Scale: 5 (out of 10). The performances are spot on, but you are asked to believe a lot of “only in L.A.” coincidences. Don’t sweat these too much, and just enjoy the film.

Genre Grade: I call this movie a comedy about criminals and other weirdos, and by that standard, B+.

Pantheon Percentile: 80. This is a solidly made film, fabulously acted, and except for the epilogue I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of it. There might be Oscar nominations in Matchstick Men if it catches on.

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