Movie Review
Matchstick Men
Matchstick Men poster
By Stephen Lucas     Published September 14, 2003
US Release: September 12, 2003

Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Nicolas Cage , Sam Rockwell , Alison Lohman , Bruce McGill

Running Time: 116 minutes
Domestic Box Office: $36,873,000
Very stylish and suave, with superb performances
Con men must be extremely interesting figures in the scheme of things, because it seems as though more and more movies keep getting made about them.

It's not possible to count all of the heist movies made in the past year on one or maybe even two hands. TV shows, too, have started to become more infatuated with them. However many get made and there aren't many that can rise up to the challenge of creating something new or exposing its audience to an authentic con man adventure.
"Matchstick Men," the latest addition to the enormous genre, stars the likes of Nicholas Cage, Sam Rockwell ("Confessions of a Dangerous Mind"), and Alison Lohman ("White Oleander"). It's an expertly done film -- very stylish and suave -- with superb performances. There are twists in "Men" that may take some audience members back (I know I was one of them), and slick characters are byproducts of a well-oiled script, full of good dialogue.

There's a part of me that isn't sure what to think, also. Originality plays a big factor in a film like this, and to be honest, "Matchstick Men" isn't entirely up to par in that sense. Some of the scenes are done often and quite similarly, so I'm not sure that this is one of the optimum films among a sea of others. "Matchstick Men" is clever, charming, and in many ways, very affectionate, but superb acting, direction, and writing don't quite add up to an "excellent" movie -- but instead, one of very great quality.

"Matchstick Men" is the latest film directed by Ridley Scott, a man notoriously known in Hollywood for his epic films including "Alien," "Gladiator," and most recently, "Black Hawk Down." Big budgets and large scales are what Scott is good with, and it seems as though "Men" may be out of his element or area of expertise. 1993's "Thelma & Louise," starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, is a good example to disprove that, though.

That particular film, directed by his truly, was one of the most memorable dramas (and, in a way, adventures) of the 90's. A simple but highly effective study of two women drawn to the edge (literally), "Thelma & Louise" is one of his most critically acclaimed films, so his directing of "Matchstick Men" seems that much more reasonable.

His work with the film (adapted from the author name novel), is clean and nice on the eyes. His direction, though not as grand as he's known for, is right for this type of film and is analogous of Steven Soderbergh or Quentin Tarantino's style, both of which would have been fitting for this film.

Scott's cast -- a flawless trio -- are incredibly suitable for this film and give it a handsome, smart, and frank edge in the scheme of con dramas because they make their characters real and we, in turn, care about what happens to them. Although it's obvious they were going for a more comedic edge, what they gave us is such, but with an emotional undercurrent.

I've always been partial to comedies that give itself depth like that, as without attachment or care for a film's characters, there is really little way to laugh with them as opposed to laughing at them. Cage brings his character Roy to ever-so-fantastic life; Roy is an obsessive-compulsive con man whose daily routine is down pat -- wake up, get a shower, dress, look out at the pool, take pills, and head off to work. Near the beginning of the film, he becomes low on medications, and is now flipping out and his obsessive mannerisms are going haywire as a result. He's on-edge, twitching, and experiences impaired speech without the right treatment.

His partner in crime, Frank (gloriously cast as the talented Sam Rockwell), sends him to a psychiatrist in order for Roy to get the attention he needs. Even so, the slightest of things -- shoes on his carpet, fibers of carpet out of place, and being outside -- affect him as if they were deadly bacteria eating away at calmness. The biggest surprise and seeming disturbance is the arrival of his fourteen-year-old daughter Angela (Alison Lohman) who enters his life having not ever seen her before.

Like teenagers her age, Angela is quite disorganized and (in Roy's mind) messy. At first, he's more awkward than uncomfortable with her, but as they get to know each other, he lets down his guard and doesn't feel the urge to have to clean as profusely. Their relationship is one of great poignancy, and is subject of some of the film's most memorable scenes.

The emotional side of the film that I hinted at before lies there, in those two characters; we learn a lot about who Roy is and why he is this way and we can't help but have fun and (at some point) feel for him. What many movies about con men seem to forget is to ask us why we should care if they get away with the money, why we should want the bad guys to win, and ultimately, why we saw their movie in the first place. Without a connection to Roy, there isn't any of the other characters, but that isn't a worry I ever had in "Matchstick Men." From the first scene, we're entertained by Roy and soon learn the reason as to why we like him so much.

Cage's performance, like his turn in last year's "Adaptation," is flawless and absolutely stunning. Cage earned an Oscar nomination for the latter performance this past spring, so I'd hope to think that he'd once again see similar recognition for even better work in this film. Isn't it funny how the two performances that have earned him award attention -- "Leaving Las Vegas," his stunning breakthrough, and "Adaptation" -- were the films in which he played somewhat lonesome, quirky, and sympathetic characters?

His role in "Matchstick Men" as Roy encompasses all of those glorious qualities as well, which leads me to believe that Cage can only thrive in meaty, interesting roles like these, as opposed to his cut-and-dry roles in films like "Con Air" and the deplorable "Gone in 60 Seconds." Here's to hope that he'll continue to pick up more scripts like "Matchstick Men" so we don't have to groan our way through another viewing of "Snake Eyes."

His co-stars -- Sam Rockwell and Alison Lohman -- are relative newcomers, whose breakthrough roles both came last year in the form of leading roles that showcased each of their respective strengths. Rockwell's role was that of Chuck Barris in George Clooney's directorial debut, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," and Lohman's was in "White Oleander," a drama in which she held her own with an A-List cast including Renee Zellweger and Michelle Pheiffer.

Rockwell loves to play the goofy, slick, and conniving characters, it seems, as he's so damn good at it. A man with this much talent who continuously makes us laugh is good, first of all, but then to make it look so easy (and in this film, so natural) is impressive to say the least.

Lohman, who I believe to be the new generation's most talented new actress, is absolutely incredible. In "White Oleander" we saw her as a sad, disillusioned teenage girl, but in "Matchstick Men" her role is far less complex and more fun, yet it seems she's just as sad as her character in "Oleander" is, underneath.

Throughout the film, she reminded me of Kirsten Dunst, who to some isn't very impressive, but I saw great flexibility and talent in Dunst's performances in both "crazy/beautiful" and "The Virgin Suicides." Lohman has time to develop as an actress, as she can even roll with the best of them. Cage may steal scenes throughout the film, but Lohman tugs back again and again; she's destined to be a big star -- watch out for her.

Although "Matchstick Men" is a lot of fun and maintains a spirited pace, the character study that lies herein is equally engaging; I was both entertained and enriched by having seen this film. The lack of originality in the scheme of good things is rather minimal. Expository elements like getting to know what these con men do is actually very much the same with other capers or heists, but that doesn't make it terribly right in any case.

The cutesy factor starts to sit in from time to time with scenes dealing with their "business," but never bog them down in any respect. "Men" is similar to that of Steven Soderbergh's remake of "Oceans Eleven" because each relies (and react) heavily on an exceptional cast and skilled direction in order to have success.

"Matchstick Men," when compared to the vast number of films created of similar subject, stands out by its own merits. Style, grace, and skill are what balance it throughout -- three things that all such movies crave, desire, and most of them ultimately do not have. If I were Roy, particular of the slightest of details, there would only be a little bit of cleaning up to do because overall, this film is nearly spotless.
Stephen's Grade: B+
Stephen's Overall Grading: 23 graded movies
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'Matchstick Men' Articles
  • Lee's review B
    September 14, 2003    Absorbed me immensely for most of the duration with its cool and jazzy tone and intriguing characters -- Lee Tistaert
  • Greg's review A+
    September 14, 2003    It is very rare that a film this outstanding comes along -- Greg Ward