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You’re not a bad guy, you know. You’re just not a very good one.

Movie

Matchstick Men
(2003)

 

Conning the conman has a lot of going for it as a premise. An enormous amount, if you’re David Mamet. Unfortunately, Sir Ridley Scott (he was plain Ridders prior to 2003) is no Mamet, and neither are screenwriters Ted and Nicholas Griffin. Ted’s Ocean’s 11 remake, curiously, had pretty much the reverse issue of Matchstick Men. There, there were never any real obstacles in the way of the crew making their score (none they couldn’t produce a rabbit out of a hat to resolve). That didn’t matter too much though, as you were in it for a breezy, good-time heist. Here, we’re told how skilled Nicolas Cage’s Roy Waller is at the con, but he spends the entire movie succumbing to the schemes of those around him. He’s everybody’s dupe, which makes the picture, on revisit, quite wearing.

Not that I was wholly sold first time round, as for all that the cast are very good, there’s something rather disengaging about the foregrounded father-daughter bonding/background con approach. I suspect there are two factors there. One is that, despite the performances of Nicolas Cage and Alison Lohman, there isn’t enough reason to care about these two coming together as a family (as we see it on first run).

The other is that the cons the Griffins come up with don’t have the juice to engage or impress. It’s only really at the climax of the (apparent) con on Bruce McGill’s Chuck Frechette, as Roy and Angela are attempting their escape through a torturously slow-moving garage checkpoint, that Scott even opts into standard con movie devices of “Will they get away with it?” (“In this situation, it’s very important to remain calm”).

And, because the central relationship is rather ambivalent, we’re not as invested as we should be. Roy’s a mass of facial tics, light sensitivity and OCD behaviour, something Scott loves exploring with the camera and the edit, yet doesn’t feel wholly right for the material. We’ll see his genre unbendablility with the full-on romcom of A Good Year in a couple of movies time, where he’s well out of his comfort zone; when he pulls for the comic visuals here, they fail to provide the rhythms of humour, so the laughs derive mainly from performance.

The screenplay is serviceable, based on Eric Garcia novel of same name, but something of a house of cards, reliant on genre clichés and tenuous supposition (the con only works if Roy will want a relationship with his “daughter”, and if he doesn’t call his ex to discuss her at any point – when honestly, it seems pretty damn likely that he would).

Under Scott, though – going back to the Ocean’s 11 comparison – Matchstick Men recalls the way Steven Soderbergh makes highly professional, functional, schematic exercises and slaps “film” on them as a description, expecting you to give a toss (has Soderbergh made more than one movie where you really care about the characters?) Scott accordingly over-directs, very, very literally, when a more musical, lighter touch might have yielded better results. On the other hand, since he directs everything the same way, indifferent to genre or form, he doesn’t dwell on what might be tells that could tip off the viewer.

There’s a big problem too that Roy’s trials and tribulations simply aren’t interesting enough without the twist, and with the twist he just seems like a chump who should know better. Sure, there’s lots of “sly” winks to those paying attention (“I don’t do long cons” he instructs protégé Frank; “And for God’s sake, make sure the person you’re conning isn’t conning you” is his lesson to Angela, who is, of course, conning him).

With a Mamet script like House of Games, the conman is eventually conned in a manner of a Russian doll, where tables are turned and there are twists within twists. Here, the Griffins have simply worked backwards, which renders Roy entirely impotent, thus making it very difficult to credit the plaudits laid at his door by Angela (“Wow, my dad’s a smooth operator”) and Frank (“If it makes any difference, you’re the best I ever saw”).

If you’re a fan of unhinged Cage, though, you’ll find much to enjoy here. He was making the kind of variable choices by this point that have now become endemic to his career, but they also included a string of admirably forlorn types (AdaptationThe Weather Man) that gave him something fruitful to explore. In Matchstick Men, his protesting exasperation (“uhhhh”) as situations spiral out of his tight control is marvellous to behold. Even more so, his wired emphases mid-sentence (“… a lot of these WHACK jobs”; “Have you ever been dragged to the sidewalk and beaten till you PISSED… BLOOD?!”) His scenes with his “shrink” – Bruce Altman, who is obviously a fake on revisit as he smokes a pipe – are also highlights, for the reason of getting the full Cage unleashed, and it’s the only time where he doesn’t consistently come across as a sap.

RoyIt’s not fun doing what I do. A lot of people who don’t deserve it. Old people. Fat people. Lonely. A lot of the time I feel sick about it.

The movie’s emotional arc, or rather Roy’s, requires the clear establishing that Roy is not a sociopath, and indeed it’s most likely – given how family life has settled him down, come the cosy last scene – that his tendencies are a direct result of doing a job he knows is morally unconscionable (“I’m not very good at being a dad, okay. You know, alright, I barely get by being me” he tells Angela at one point). The ending may seem like a soft-touch, pat decision (by losing everything – well, except his house – Roy gains everything), but it’s consistent with the Griffins’ goal, as very un-Mamet as it is. Talking of Mamet, much of the writers’ dialogue is very sharp, although, as clever (and much quoted) as “For some people, money is… money is a foreign film without subtitles” is, it’s overwritten, the sort of thing only screenwriters would think up.

One inevitable consequence of the structure is that we have little insight into those conning Roy. Sam Rockwell seems to be doing the cocky showboating thing he’s been doing in every movie in the decade and a half since (and I say that as a fan).

Lohman’s performance rightly got raves for convincingly playing a character a decade younger than she was, but are we really offered any insights into Angela? She reunites with Roy where he now works, in a carpet shop, boyfriend in tow (Fran Kanz of Dollhouse and Cabin in the Woods), assuring Roy his was the only con she ever pulled and that Frank left her standing; it’s designed to underline that their connection was genuine, despite the chicanery, rightly resulting from the makers wondering what it would all be for if Roy was no more than the biggest sucker evah. Some have raved about Scott’s impressive use of a female character here, but Angela is essentially a cypher as we can’t know her, only her grift.

Of course, by this point Scott, in his mid-sixties, had embarked on a new period of hyper-productivity that continues today. If his current movie isn’t wholly satisfying, there’ll be another not-wholly-satisfying one little more than a year away (between 2000 and 2010 he directed nine features). Matchstick Men, hinging so much on character, is more interesting and effective than much of his surrounding work, but forgets that, for the twist to pack a real punch, the informing elements need to be sustainable without it.

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