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MATCHSTICK MEN
U.S. Release Date: September 12, 2003
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: Ted Griffin
Producer: Sean Bailey, Ridley Scott
Composer: Hans Zimmer
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell
Running Time: 2 hours
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (thematic elements, violence, some sexual content, language)

A Caper with Character
by C.A. Wolski

Director Ridley Scott's caper flick Matchstick Men about two con artists and their latest score is somewhat of a con itself. That's because the movie is not really about the caper or any of the duo's criminal activities. It's about the redemptive power of personal values.

Roy (Nicolas Cage) and Frank (Sam Rockwell) are two petty "matchstick men" who make a good, middle class living pulling a variety of scams in and around Los Angeles. The problem is senior partner Roy is an obsessive compulsive who is coming apart at the seams. His illegal source of medications gone, Roy is directed by Frank to a psychiatrist who suggests that the con man reconnect with the child he never knew he had as a way to overcome his various obsessive-compulsive quirks. Enter Angela (Allison Lohman), Roy's 14-year-old daughter and newest protégé.

Matchstick Men follows a fairly typical arc with Roy and Angela coming to terms with the 14-year gap in their relationship, doing a number of activities together from bowling to grifting. There are the typical emotional blowups and reconciliations to be expected in a father-daughter relationship, but Scott gives them a twist that makes them feel fresh and almost unfamiliar.

While Roy is healing his soul, he decides to run one last con as a sort of going away present to Frank. The con is simple, realistically so, not relying on any implausible plot devices, again making the whole thing feel as fresh and breezy as the sunny California landscape in which the picture is set. It is when things don't quite work out as expected, that the movie really hits its stride and becomes the little gem it was meant to be.

Unlike Scott's Gladiator, which had a similar hero—a soul sick man trying to heal himself—Matchstick Men works much better because the scale of the story is so small. This is about people trying to make it in a confusing, dangerous world. And that's why we root for them. But like Gladiator, the movie falls a little flat in its ability to make an emotional connection with the audience. We feel for the characters, we root for the ones we like, but in a more abstract way, not in a visceral punched in the stomach way that we, and they, deserve.

That said—and it's really only a small quibble—the cast does an outstanding job. It's obvious Cage is having a good time during the grift scenes, and doesn't overdo it in the obsessive compulsive ones. Scott relies more on point of view camera techniques to indicate the turmoil in Roy's soul. Rockwell is solid, as always. But the real star turn is by Lohman, who is an absolute joy to watch.

Though just missing the heights of movie excellence by a hair, Matchstick Men is well worth a look, even if it's just as a curative from the closing summer's lunkheadedness.


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