Archive for Friday, September 12, 2003

Matchstick Men’ succumbs to con game

(PG-13) ***

September 12, 2003

"One, two, three ..."

It's a familiar ritual for Roy (Nicolas Cage), whether he is
unlocking a door three times or performing most other routine tasks
that he must approach with a pacifying repetition in order to get
through the day.

Roy is saddled with an obsessive-compulsive disorder and
Tourette's-like mannerisms. Whether this makes him compelled to
over-clean things or prevents him from venturing into large outdoor
areas, the affliction is a burden on his life.

It doesn't help that he's a con man, with an ambitious junior
partner (Sam Rockwell) trying to lure him into a big score. Nor does
it make things easier that the daughter he never knew (Alison
Lohman), has decided to contact him for the first time ... and she
wants in on the action.

"You don't seem like you're a bad guy," she tells him.

He replies, "That's what makes me good at it."

Fresh from the outstanding comedy "Adaptation," Cage delivers another
Oscar-worthy performance in "Matchstick Men." Finally, one of
America's most interesting actors seems to have shaken the need to
appear in big-budget junk fests such as "Windtalkers" and "Con Air"
that he'd been cranking out as redundantly as Roy had been opening
doors.

As in "Adaptation," where Cage played twin brothers with wildly
different personalities, the seasoned actor never turns this latest
role into a gimmick. Poor Roy may be wracked with quirky mannerisms,
but Cage cuts through that to prove it's the man underneath that is
the essence of this comedic drama.

As good as Cage is in this flashy showcase, co-star Lohman is his
equal. Depicting the false bravado and gawky cluelessness of a
14-year-old is hard enough onscreen, especially considering the
actress turns 24 this week. Think how clunky the line "Nice to meet
you, Dad" would be if not delivered with utter conviction. A well-played finale where she and Cage much reassess their relationship only accentuates how formidable her skills are.

When tackling a contemporary movie that is primarily dialogue-driven,
director Ridley Scott ("Black Hawk Down," "Gladiator") isn't exactly
the first choice one would expect. The British filmmaker has always
been more concerned with the visual elements of his projects than the
people who inhabit the frame. Yet Scott really tones things down for
this one.

He inserts a few camera tricks to simulate what it looks like from
Roy's perception when his malady is getting the best of him. (One is
triggered when a mark casually leaves a patio door open that Roy's
mind begs him to shut.) But overall Scott lets the leisurely power of
Ted and Nicholas Griffin's script (based on the Eric Garcia novel)
dictate the approach.

If only the film had the confidence to stick with its character study arc, it might have been regarded as among 2003's strongest offerings. But instead the narrative gets too tricky for its own good during the
third act.

Like "Identity" and "Swimming Pool" from earlier in the year, "Matchstick Men" thinks that a mind-altering turnaround is preferable to sustaining its initial storyline. Of the three, this film handles the switcheroo the most gracefully. But here again is a case where the plot that the movie CLAIMS to be about is far more interesting than the REAL plot that is ultimately revealed.

(Note: That sentence will make a lot more sense once a viewer has
experienced the revelation.)

In a film such as this, one can only increase the layers of deception
so much before they suffocate the basic story. Avoiding this
cinematic pitfall should be as easy as one, two, three.

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