Matchstick Men (2003) ***1/2
Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Nicholas Griffin & Ted Griffin, based on the book by Eric Garcia. Photography, John Mathieson. Editing, Dody Dorn. Production design, Tom Foden. Music, Hans Zimmer. Produced by Jack Rapke, Ridley Scott, Steve Starkey, Sean Bailey & Ted Griffin. Cast: Nicolas Cage (Roy Waller), Sam Rockwell (Frankie), Alison Lohman (Angela), Bruce Altman (Dr. Klein), Bruce McGill (Chuck Frechette) et al. A Warners release. 115 minutes. PG-13.
Sir Ridley Scott (knighted in 2003) is a force of nature, what with, among other films, "Alien," "Blade Runner," "Thelma and Louise," " Gladiator," "Hannibal," " Black Hawk Down," and more works that differ from one another. His current "Matchstick Men" is an excellent addition to his repertory and another surprising departure from the previous ones. Here Sir Ridley experiments with comedy and sentiment in screwball ways that are as curious as Laurel and Hardy playing Holmes and Watson or Humphrey Bogart tap-dancing with Fred Astaire.
Still, it came as no major surprise to me, because I remember fondly Ridley Scott's first feature, the 1977 wonderful, original, oddly subtle (yet seldom seen) "The Duellists." The film's title, whose provenance escapes me, refers to relatively smalltime con men, a duo who swindle ordinary individuals via increasingly familiar scams which start with telephone calls. Frankie (Rockwell) is pretty much of a slob. Roy (Cage), a bachelor living alone in relative luxury, is at the opposite pole, in spades. Roy is a colossal hypochondriac, a living collection of manias, tics, phobias -name it, he's got it. His passion for orderliness and cleanliness is of Nobel-prize magnitude. He has unchanging routines, eats out of cans, chain-smokes, devotes efforts to the removal of a micron of ash-or of a single leaf from his swimming pool. The man is a basket case. And he considers himself "a scam artist."
Roy is the major focus of the movie. I will neither disclose his ways and means. It is enough to say that Nicolas Cage is terrific in his role. And that while seeking medical care (in the shape of pills) from a new doctor, a shrink (Bruce Altman , perfect and original in that role,) as one thing leads to another Roy discovers that he has a 14-year daughter named Angela (Alison Lohman who is actually 23) with whom he bonds.
The story develops in unexpected, original, mostly low key fashion that's antipodal to what one expects from Sir Ridley. This, up to the point where there develops a mega-scam involving the principals-plus (don't ask,) foreign currency and an already dishonest victim (no honor among thieves) accelerates the tempo.
The low-key extends to the photography, the use of color and the editing - all different from what we are used to, and with several clever, fresh ways. It all sounds like a flawless film, but I do have some reservations which a second viewing might either diminish or increase. One of the small negative aspects is that AGAIN the story takes place in Los Angeles. Are there no other cities in the films of Hollywood? Past its first 45 minutes the movie may produce some small tedium, as the tempo gets occasionally flabby and some parts are stretched out. And the "one-year later" epilogue feels tacked in.
Yet the over-the-top performances, the amazing, credible rejuvenation of Ms. Lohman into a teen-ager, a number of delicious and subtle touches (e.g. the recurring expressions of a female grocery cashier,) are inventive and convincing.
In a positive sense, the major scam of the movie is that it scams the viewers. The negative side of all this is in the "orphan" sections of the plot, i.e. the gaps and the holes. Item, the confusing, muddled development of the Big Scam of foreign currencies. Item, the unconvincing, unclear scam that uses Angela and a victim lady at the Laundromat, in which the conclusion is not shown. In other words, in spite of delicious details, there is an absence (here and, alas, in most thrillers) a lack of what I call "Hitchcockian clarity."
Warts and all however, this is a very good relief from the dull idiocies that fill the commercial screen from January through August, that is, before the start of the competition for Oscars in the last 3 or 4 months of each year.