Matchstick Men has it all — a flawless script (by talented first-timer Nicholas Griffin, and based on Eric Garcia’s novel), energetic and enigmatic direction (Ridley Scott), and unforgettable performances by both tempered pros and a young tyro. Without fireworks or train wrecks or a cast of thousand costumed extras, Matchstick Men works its magic with a story that’s built on character, and full of humor and heartbreak (take a hankie) — plus enough plot twists to make fans of The Sting and Paper Moon stop longing for the good old days.
Roy Waller (Nicolas Cage, Adaptation) is a brilliant con artist (a matchstick man) who also happens to be a phobic compulsive-obsessive, whose body breaks into uncontrollable tics at the slightest provocation. He eats only tuna fish, must open the door three times before letting anyone in and maniacally cleans his furniture — every piece of it — with a toothbrush.
Roy’s protege/partner in crime is Frank Mercer (Sam Rockwell, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), a greedy grifter who is uncharacteristically tolerant of Roy’s idiosyncrasies. When Roy accidentally flushes his medication down the drain, Frank refers him to a psychiatrist (Bruce Altman, Changing Lanes) who prescribes a new pill that calms Roy down and allows him to face the terrible guilt he carries for abandoning his pregnant wife 14 years ago. With the encouragement of the doctor, Roy finds Angela (Alison Lohman, White Oleander), the child he never knew, a smart but seemingly innocent teenager who acts more in love with her skateboard than with boys or drugs. Unannounced, Angela moves into Ray’s house, forcing him to deal with his phobias and become the father he never was.
Cage and Lohman are so electric together you can’t help but throw moral concerns to the wind and root for their success when he starts teaching her how to steal other people’s money. She’s a surprisingly apt student, channeling her natural charm easily into fleecing unsuspecting victims. After a painstakingly planned con against a local crook (Bruce McGill, Legally Blonde 2) goes very bad, Roy insists that Frank escape and take Alison to safety with him.
At this point everything you thought was happening ain’t happening and 1 plus 1 no longer adds up to 2. You can’t help but replay the movie in your head, seeing now what you hadn’t seen before, hearing little clues in the dialogue that slipped past before, realizing why the director chose to shoot a scene in this particular way rather than some other.
While not as violent as Heist or as grand as The Usual Suspects, the small-scale Matchstick Men is nevertheless a worthy contender in the con-game-movie hall of fame. The fact that it is also a unique father-daughter tale makes it even more worthy.
– reviewed by Marci Miller