September 18, 2003

Matchstick Men

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Watching the previews for Matchstick Men, I realized something. Every coming attraction was either a historical, heavy-budgeted action flick (The Last Samurai, Master & Commander, The Alamo) or your typical romantic comedy (I made it a point not to remember these titles). This easy branding of films into two categories has gone too far, and only rarely, has the box office generated a character truly worth watching. Thank you, Matchstick Men. This film works because it focuses on its characters’ flaws, not their strengths. Ironically, Ridley Scott, who shot Gladiator, Blade Runner, and Alien, among other notable action flicks, directs the film. The successful turn to more drama is a remarkable achievement, a tangent comparable to Kubrick’s Lolita. There are no superheroes in Matchstick Men, just real people. Though it involves criminal activity, the weight of importance is placed much more on whether the characters find balance and happiness than if they pull off the crime.

Nicolas Cage plays Roy Waller, a con artist with a noticeable case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. After Roy goes through therapy to deal with his extreme cleanliness and array of phobias, he has his shrink contact his daughter, whom he has never met (Roy split with his wife while she was pregnant). From the beginning, there is a distinct gap between the smooth, confident con artist Roy and the Roy who has to open and close each door three times and put his tuna cans in plastic bags before throwing them away. Enter his 14-year old daughter Angela, convincingly played by 24-year old Alison Lohman to a tee. The adolescent forces her father to live at her level, a little more care-free and with many more laughs. Just as Roy learns about his daughter, Angela becomes curious about Roy’s professional life. From this point, the film takes on even more than its unique take on a flawed criminal. It becomes a father & daughter Bonnie & Clyde with empathy for Roy, as he teaches his tricks of the trade to Angela. We want Roy to feel more than a criminal disconnection from society. When he teams up with his daughter, it is the unforeseen look of happiness on his face that meters more of a success than the dollar amount of the heist. There is a sub-theme that develops from this point, and it is that a man’s job doesn’t define him nearly as much as the people in his life.

Matchstick Men is very creative in developing its characters and story. Its failure is structure. Plot twists are expected towards the end, but even after the twists, the film remains genuine through the authenticity of its characters (most noticeable with Roy, Angela and a grocery-worker named Kathy). One of the more ambitious movies I have seen, this film can enter under an array of different genres. I am actually curious to see in what genre others place it. Be it Drama, Crime, Thriller, Comedy, or even Romance, it remains true to each style of film while never fully committing itself to a prototypical story. Interestingly, the movie reminded me of last year’s Adaptation., not only because it starred a distraught Nic Cage, but also because both films bring the viewer inside the world of a conflicted genius. In both films, we adapt our values and goals to the protagonist’s uneveness. A lot of Matchstick’s camerawork is fascinating and dizzying, which makes the viewer just as uncomfortable as Roy when a door is opened or food is dropped on the floor. This technique syncs the viewer with Roy’s perspective. His panic is, while crazy, understood, and Angela’s innocent and needy presence is twice as important. It is no doubt easy to see that she calms him down, and that life as a criminal makes him paranoid — he has been imprisoned without having been arrested. The opening credits reminded me of Catch Me If You Can, but the movie itself had much more flavor in its ingredients than Spielberg’s go at the con artist. Roy’s priorities in life change as he develops a fatherly relationship with Angela. Forming his values around his daughter, realizings his importance to her, reminded me of the underrated True Romance, coincidentally directed by Tony Scott, Ridley’s brother.

In the end, Matchstick Men sticks to no one genre, and Roy’s character growth is as well captured as it is heart-warming. Nicolas Cage and Ridley Scott prove why they are on the A-list, and at the same time, Alison Lohman proves that she is quite gifted playing a girl close to half her age. Walking out of the theater, I felt a sense of relief, not only that my $6 were well spent, but knowing that there were still movies out there that didn’t just focus on the action or the romance, but the alternative ‘in-between.’

Archived article by Dan Cohen