MATCHSTICK MEN

Directed by Sir Ridley Scott. USA. 2003.


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Meet Roy Waller (Nicolas Cage) ladies and gentleman. Sure heís handsome and suave with charm and charisma oozing from his veins, but donít be taken in by first impressions. He can definitely walk the walk, and he has made a something of a career out of talking the talk, but be warned donít believe a single thing he says. You see, Roy is a matchstick man, a flim-flam guy, a professional con artist- and a pretty darn good one at that. Along with partner Frank Mercer (Sam Rockwell), Roy is on the verge of pulling off his most ambitious and lucrative con job to date - the only thing stopping him is a fourteen year old girl called Angela (Alison Lohman), and well, himself. You see beneath the polished exterior, Roy is a twitchy obsessive compulsive, he canít cope with any disruption to his meticulously ordered routine, he hyperventilates at the sight (or thought of) dirt and chronic agoraphobia sends him into a spasm of uncontrollable tics and dizziness. The only thing that keeps him functioning anywhere near normally is an illegally gotten stockpile of pink pills. When he runs out and discovers that his supplier has left town Roy has no option but to seek help from shrink Dr Harris Klein (Bruce Altman).

Diagnosing that the root of all Royís problems lie in his guilt over abandoning his wife some fourteen years previous, Dr Klein puts Roy back in touch with Angela, the daughter whose existence heíd long suspected but never confirmed. His tightly ordered lifestyle begins to unravel after Angela lands on his doorstep needing a place to stay, and Roy grapples with the challenges of fatherhood whilst trying to keep his dubious employment credentials a secret from her. Angela however is one smart cookie, and soon extracts the truth from her father, begging to be let in on the act. Roy is a crook with a conscience, and despite initial reservations he soon relents and teaches her a few tricks of the trade, as father and daughter discover some common ground and begin to bond. 

Honoured with a knighthood in 2002 for services to the movie making industry, Sir Ridley Scott has been at the helm of some of the most successful movies of the past two decades, directing Thelma & Louise, Alien and Gladiator to name but a few. However, this is his latest offering isnít set to become a crown jewel in his back catalogue. The plot of Matchstick Men is substantial enough to keep the audiences attention for the duration, as it meanders along in an inoffensive two-dimensional kind of way. This movie has the potential to be very good - all the ingredients are there - but an ill-conceived ending and inadequate twist in the tale at the movies climax ultimately betrays it. Instead of having audiences gleefully saying Ď I didnít see that one comingí and sending their minds racing back through the past hour and a half searching for the clues that should now seem so obvious, instead the end simply doesnít justify the means. The turn of events that begins with Roy being knocked unconscious and waking up in police custody realising that the scam has gone completely wrong and ends with the supposed Ďahaí revelatory moment doesnít have the desired effect at all. Instead its impact is severely muted and is nothing more than a cheap shot, a quick and easy way of bringing on the end credits.

Ultimately Matchstick Men is a movie that tells rather than shows, and hereby lies its biggest weakness. Weighed down by dialogue heavy scenes, it demands very little engagement from its audience on anything more than a superficial level. You donít need to think as everything is spelled out for you, right down to the Ďone year laterí sequence at the end, which does the worst possible thing, and tries to convince you that everything will come good in the end.

Despite the limitations of the script they are working from Cage, Rockwell and Lohman should be credited for turning in solid, largely believable performances.  The dysfunctional nature of Royís relationship with his daughter is strengthened by the vulnerability that newcomer Alison Lohman injects into her performance, offset by Nicolas Cageís ability to bring quirky dysfunctional characters to life. Although it should be noted that consummate professional pro Cage overplays his hand at times, pushing Royís mannerisms and tics past the boundaries of realistic and into the ridiculous and at times plain annoying, which ultimately detracts from the movies narrative.

The partnership between Roy and his protégé Frank is an interesting one. Rockwell and Cage are both incredibly charismatic actors who work well together, however their characters relationship is grossly underdeveloped, and largely ignored. In many ways Rockwellís character is the antithesis of Cageís but it as a dynamic that isnít explored, so again when the plot twist arrives you are left wondering why you should care so much. Knowing that Ridley Scott and Nicolas Cage as director and actor are capable of infinitely better than Matchstick Men offers, and witnessing the untapped and largely ignored potential of relative newcomers Sam Rockwell and Alison Lohman, you canít help but come away from this movie feeling like youíve been a little conned.

Emma Dixon
 
 
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