: Wednesday, September 10, 2003
Matchstick Men\r\nStarring Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell, Alison Lohman, Bruce Altman, Bruce McGill. Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Ted Griffin and Nicholas Griffin, based on Eric Garcia’s novel. Rated PG-13.
Director’s Cut

The only thing wrong with Matchstick Men happens behind the camera.

In Matchstick Men, Roy (Nicolas Cage), a con man tortured by a wicked case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, reunites with his delinquent daughter Angela (Alison Lohman). With the help of his full-of-piss-and-vinegar partner Frank (Sam Rockwell), Roy teaches Angela the con while he himself learns the meaning of fatherhood. In the midst of Roy’s lovey-dovey relationship with his newfound daughter, fast jobs with his cool breeze accomplice, and his antic dealings with his disorder, the three of them plan a big score. Off the bat, Matchstick Men sounds like an eccentric, feel-good comedy ready for fall release. But put director Ridley Scott at the helm, and, well, you get a flick mostly obscured by the director’s fingerprints.

Scott, famous for spearheading intense period pieces in exotic lands, is a master of trick editing and gritty cinematography — perfect for larger-than-life, serious adventures. Not comedy. In the lightweight Matchstick Men, Scott still finds it necessary to use his signature “tricks.” Muffled, accelerated dialogue from partner Frank and shaky, flickering camera attacks take you inside Roy’s queasy neurosis; the film’s almost serious at this point. You gotta wonder if Scott, with his penchant for exploring the darker side of things, was the right talent to head up a quirky comedy.

Like an ad exec turning 40 and trying to find himself, the film searches for its own identity and, in the meantime, ends up confusing everybody else. It’s as if our principals are interspersing lines from three different comedies, with four different soundtracks all spliced together.

The entire cast does what it can to salvage the shambled narrative. Cage, Rockwell, Lohman, and Bruce Altman as Roy’s shrink all absorb their characters wholeheartedly. Playing off his performance in Adaptation, Cage is spastic, with a performance that is more physically impressive than it is funny. A twitching left eye, body parts covered in sweat, and, when he’s low on medication, an inability to control his breathing between sentences all help define the character’s personality. Altman, usually a main character’s foil, doesn’t miss a nerdy beat with Cage at the doctor’s office.

The synergy among the first-rate cast is never in question. They hold every note on the song sheet. The script isn’t half-bad, either, despite the fact that it won’t get you laughing as much as chuckling. Above all, it’s the director who raises doubts. Scott may very well have just hammered himself over recent years with overbearing premises involving serial killers and brain tissue, butch buxom babes and shaved heads, powerhouse pinup boys and starving mad Somalians, and Roman warriors battling lions, tigers, and bears. I imagine it difficult for anyone to break loose from such severe subject matter, to come back down and film something realistic, like con men with issues living in the present day.

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