Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Sep 28, 2003 7:51 pm 
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The old con within a con

Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men is from a novel by semi-cult writer Eric Garcia. The premise is well publicized: a con man who suffers from various forms of compulsive behavior discovers that he has a fourteen-year-old daughter, and for a while – spanned by the movie – she becomes a part of his life. Meanwhile his partner pushes him into the big score he’s long avoided.

Matchstick Men is the opportunity for the hardworking Nicolas Cage to take on another challenge: playing a loveable neurotic who’s also a serous criminal. A con job, a father-daughter story, and a psychological portrait all in one, this screenplay takes on a bit more than it can handle. Even though Ridley Scott does his best to give it deftness and rhythm, the movie doesn’t fully develop as either crime drama or family drama. It doesn’t show character in depth like Stephen Frears’ The Grifters; doesn’t study con games and con artists in detail like Nine Queens; and isn’t as exciting and suspenseful as crime thrillers like The Italian Job or Rififi. The fun, and fun there undeniably is, is in watching the actors and filmmakers try to distract us from these shortcomings. At moments they do succeed. But then your realize you’ve been conned, and you haven’t gotten to the bottom of the crime, the con mentality, or the neurotic personalities of the principals.

As the movie opens Roy (Cage, the compulsive) and partner-protégé Frank (Sam Rockwell, who’s more of an adrenalin junky and wastrel) are involved in “short cons,” What they’re doing now is using fake phone prizes to get into people’s bank accounts. Roy can function well living alone in his immaculate house, so long as he has his meds. But when they suddenly run out (one wonders why a compulsive would run out of anything: he has two or more of every household cleaner), Roy goes bonkers, and then finds that his usual source of meds has left town. Frank finds Roy a psychiatrist named Klein to help Roy get his meds, and Klein not only gives Roy some new and different pills but also persuades him to come in for continuing therapy. This brings out Roy’s need to know if his ex-wife had a kid, and he gets Klein to call the wife for him. Before long fourteen-year-old Angela (Alison Lohman) enters Roy’s life.

Angela is a feisty, tomboyish girl with rough pigtails, a skateboard, sparkling eyes and cheekbones like Mariel Hemingway, as well as a surprisingly strong urge to learn about the grifter life. Against his better judgment Roy shows Angela some elementary cons and she turns out to have a natural gift for the work. Roy is torn between the belief that he ought to keep Angela far away from such business and the certain knowledge that it is the best way for them to bond, which he ardently desires.

Matchstick Men is (like Nine Queens but more simply) a con within a con, which seeks to con the audience. The trouble with this device is that when we go back and analyze the way we were conned, it makes the cons in the story themselves tend to crumble. Little effort is given, in fact, to making the men’s climactic “long con” in which they plan to take a lot of money from a nasty rich man (Bruce McGill) either convincing or well fleshed out. If the whole movie is a con on us, can we trust its portrait of the grifter life? The one time that real con men are honest is when they’re explaining their cons.

The man who best knows Roy, the compulsive-neurotic con artist Nick Cage plays, is obviously his partner and protégé, Frank (the wild and crazy Rockwell is fairly well used here), who’s as much a wastrel and slob as Roy is tidy and anal, and it’s Frank’s con – foisted on us as well as Roy – to invent the fourteen-year-old daughter who cons Roy out of his whole stash of cash. Even if you don’t realize that till late in the game, the whole network of cons and characters eventually shatters.

This plot device is as weak as most of the cons. As Nine Queens (a fuller portrait of con artists) points out, grifters are on guard against other grifters, and an experienced con artist won’t fall for his protégé’s con. Matchstick Men gets around this problem by presenting a hero who is sympathetically flawed: Roy’s mildly disabling ticks and phobias make us feel for him and then he turns out to be a complete softy. The girl’s evaluation is to say, “You’re not a bad man. You’re just not a good one.” And yet he’s an ace at his trade. “You don’t seem bad,” the daughter says when she’s met him. “That’s why I’m good,” he answers.

But is that believable? Is that enough? There’s something missing from the portrait of Roy. All that Cage gets across to us are the tics and the lovability. He does a fine job of that, but he doesn’t round out his portrait with any sense of the edge of cruel brilliance that would explain how Roy could have accumulated a huge stash of dough in a safety deposit box without ever being arrested.

It’s exciting and fun when Roy and Frank, Roy driving with his daughter, head for the airport to complete the big “long con.” Both male actors contribute to this, but Lohman is at her least sympathetic during this sequence. She's shrill and nasty, and we're beginning to realize she's one unpleasant teenager.

Frears’ The Grifters has a detailed and memorable mother-son relationship (Angelica Huston and John Cusack) as well as a story of hers with her boss, and that way the movie explores the soullessness and cruelty of con artist relations in real, chilly depth. By comparison Matchstick Men’s father-daughter relationship is slight; it’s not developed through a whole movie like Paper Moon’s. In the end it’s just a bit of lively playing around. The movie keeps us amused for a while, but it leaves us hungry. There are no real payoffs in Matchstick Men, nor does it ever quite decide what it is.

My guess is that the injection of both more comedy and more violence, à la Pulp Fiction, might have made it work better. But I don’t know. Maybe the filmmakers just conned themselves into thinking they had something here when they didn’t; maybe Eric Garcia did too.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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