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Matchstick Men

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Matchstick Men

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell
Director: Ridley Scott
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 116 Minutes
Release Date: September 2003
Genres: Comedy, Drama

*Also starring: Alison Lohman, Bruce Altman, Steve Eastin, Beth Grant, Jerry Hauck, Bruce McGill, Melora Walters, Daniel Villarreal

Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

Maybe my memory is playing tricks but when I was a kid, people who saw psychiatrists were as ashamed of admitting this as a reader of pre-Playboy girlie magazines would be if he were discovered perusing those texts. The movies had a lot to do with this. The film that best represented psychiatric problems way back was Anatole Litvak's "The Snake Pit," one of the first to deal with mental breakdowns and the recovery process in the snake pit, or the institution for the mentally disturbed. Milos Forman's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" did a lot of good for Jack Nicholson's reputation but didn't afford the profession of psychiatry good buzz with its depiction of Nurse Ratched as a woman more disturbed than her patients, the inmates of the title cuckoo's nest furthering the impression that if you were under psychiatric supervision, you were off-the-wall nuts.

"The Sopranos" made couch-work more understandable to its huge following, while Harold Ramis's "Analyze This" and "Analyze That" made clear that people seeking help on the couch were just functional people with problems that attenuated their enjoyment of life. Given society's new, healthy outlook on the needs of those with emotional difficulties, we can accept Nicolas Cage in "Matchstick Men" as a fellow who can function (more or less). Yet his blinking eyes, throaty noises, Tourette's Syndrome-like tics and a fear of the sunny outdoors--that even Dracula would find far out--might label him as a borderline psychotic.

While "Matchstick Men" has an intriguing plot caper movies about con artists often do director Ridley Scott appears primarily aiming to get an Oscar nomination for Nic Cage for a demanding performance that's just on this side of credibility. Cage, in virtually every scene, performs in the role of Roy, a scammer who with his partner-in-crime Frank Mercer (Sam Rockwell) would gain the trust of his naive victims and have them unwittingly give away information that would afford the matchstick men access to their finances. A delightful example shows Roy and Frank bilking people out of what appears a small-time take charging them quintuple for a water filtration system then acting as agents of the Federal Trade Commission requiring their signature on a statement actually allowing them to withdraw money from their bank.

The game changes with the introduction of 14-year-old Angela (Alison Lohman), who turns up in Roy's life suddenly, declaring herself his long-lost daughter whom he had never before seen. Soon she works her wiles on Roy, leading the middle-aged agoraphobic to teach her the secrets of the con game and even involving her in a plot to bilk Frenchette (Bruce McGill) out of $80,000.

"Matchstick Men" has serviceable dialogue, though scripters Nicholas Griffin and Ted Griffin, working from a book by Eric Garcia, never come close to David Mamet's incisive and rythmic verbiage despite the story's marginal similarities to a real estate scam in Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross." We're pretty certain that the adorable girl, who works her wiles on the hitherto childless man, will turn the guy's life around which she does by relaxing his neuroses on the one hand but by making up for the sentimentality as well.

Like so many films of the genre, the plot is contrived. Too many things happen by coincidence, so much so that if a single weak link in the chain of a major chain were broken, we'd have no movie. Though the story itself is hardly what you'd call original or experimental, there is some fine ensemble acting by Bruce McGill as a would-be victim who prefers not to be one, by Alison Lohman as the crafty and adorable daughter for whom a guy would do anything, by Bruce Altman as Roy's psychiatrist, and most of all by Nic Cage in a tour de force performance evoking a textbook case of compulsions, obsessions, and more acting out than raver on speed.

Copyright 2003 Harvey Karten

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