It doesn’t take much to make a big film bad, any more than it does to make a little film great. It’s guesswork at best, you know, like gambling chance in wind to find and make the perfect entertainment. Sometimes it helps to find a way in, turn to familiar directors and/or producers who’ve succeeded in the past, signal the runway for another middle east high stakes adventure flick, 80’s reboot or re-visitation, maybe just imaging the way to a new-old romantic comedy and whatever passes these days for funny. Sometimes we can follow actors in-and-out of blockbusters, the lackluster and mediocre right next to sleeping gold, the independents or foreign does the trick. But there’s never a guarantee, even from the best of the best or what we perceive them to be, no certainty that another two-hour investment will be fruitful, let alone memorable, enough to inspire sitting down to write a review about it. In the case of Ridley Scott‘s comedy drama “Matchstick Men“, a surprisingly curious and effective character story, we are reminded of the joys and beauty of simple stories told well.
“Matchstick Men” won’t win over the hardened action junkie or ardent fantasy minded, it won’t suffice for Saturday night disco. It’s supposed to be oddball quirky, snapshot funny the way all character films strive for familiarly different. You should be looking for believable, however stylized people lost in story, searching for emotions to self-inflicted catastrophe. It’s like uncovering feelings long-buried, breaking relationships just to see how they were made then stitching them back together to see if they’ll be better this time. You might find this film because of Ridley Scott, expecting grandeur, his trademarked specificity that is often copied but rarely surpassed, which is here but distilled down, essentialized. You might be disappointed if you’re looking for “Black Hawk Down” bigness, “Gladiator” or “G.I. Jane” larger than life movie-life making. This time Scott has stripped away time, place and setting in order to get at ordinary enriched with possibility, turn it around, make plot about revelation instead of so much happening. Of course everything resides on your willingness to set aside the noise and clutter of elaborate scenarios and fancy cutting, embrace the power of performance that is often glossed over, hidden in the camouflage for weak writing. Based on the novel by Eric Garcia and a script by Ted Griffin “Ocean’s 11” and his brother Nicholas Griffin (T.V. series Terriers), some have compared Matchstick Men to “Catch Me If You Can” (2002) and I suppose there’s merit there, just as one might be inclined to mention Stephen Frears “The Grifters” (1990), Irvin Kershner‘s “The Flim Flam Man” (1967) and a bunch of other films about shysters, shady types and confidence makers. But what makes Matchstick Men so compelling is how much Scott achieves with subtlety and dare I use the word ‘nuance’ that is at once playful, endearing and then rewarding – even as the ending leaves one feeling a little annoyed. Once you’ve accepted the film for what it is instead of what it is not, there’s so much to enjoy from Cage and Rockwell that makes you wonder why aren’t more films so vested in character, story and dialogue.
Two career criminals have spent a good part of their life perfecting the heel-to-toe tango of short cons and small time capers. Roy (Nic Cage) has stashed away quite a sizable nest egg with no plans of changing, content to get by in between bouts of falling down phobias. His best and maybe only friend and partner Frank (Sam Rockwell) has been pressuring him to make bigger scores, biding time to do more with less or just hedging their capers until he can convince Roy of bigger and greener pastures. And then, just as things seem set in perpetual day-to-dayness, things get a little complicated when Roy discovers his long-lost daughter Angela (Alison Lohman). Just one of the many challenges for Roy, he’s a little messed up, flustered trying to figure out which world he’s in and what to do about the differences. Eager to pick up where ever and however she can, Angela moves in and out of Roy and Frank’s tangled relationship as their worlds all come crashing together in one resounding cacophony of terms and consequences.
“Matchstick Men” flourishes on the combined strategy of Scott and lens smith John Mathieson (X-men First Class, Gladiator) with Nic Cage and Sam Rockwell giving likable miscreants the voodoo they do so well. It is a film that warmly invites you in, spends time with the getting to know you chit-chat of a world that looks a lot like our own only better lighted, more interestingly photographed and meticulously cleaned. We’ve seen this story before yet, as the famous saying goes, it’s about the journey not the destination. Once inside Matchstick, it’s the simplicity that gives richly details the most impact, from the tragically flawed and charismatic characters to their moment-by-moment scheming, lives teetering between absolute success and utter failure. It’s hard not to like this film, how slick it makes offbeat a character of its own, interacting and reminding us that films don’t always have to be moving to move us. Nicolas Cage makes messed up convincingly messed up, perhaps fueled by many encounters with inner demons and bad movie offers – he shows us he’s got a lot more acting to do. Sam Rockwell is the straight man, the perfect mix of approachable charm and susceptible misfit, easily one of the best character actors working in the business right now. The fact that the film earned high marks is telling enough for a quiet picture, not to mention the fact that it made about $65 million in its run – surely the budget was considerably less (though unavailable at boxofficemojo). It’s easy to like, funny, curious and makes you realize big is relative to your expectations and less can be more – imagine that.
Nicolas Cage‘s performance as an agoraphobe, germaphobe and a bunch of other phobes, the short con criminal turned father is easily his best since “Leaving Las Vegas“, though he received acclaim for his work in “Adaptation” as the befuddled Charlie and Donald Kaufman. Cage is difficult to figure out, lost somewhere between crazy cuckoo thespian and eccentric millionaire turned penniless specter – leading man, often conflicted by choices that result in a slew of bad photos of copied caricature roles, like his famously flawed and sometimes adored 90’s action films we’d all like to forget. I mean what do you make of films like “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” and “Windtalkers” other than Cage definitely needs a strong director to work with. Sam Rockwell stands out in every film he’s been in, whatever the role, regardless of the director. It’s funny looking back at his career, as head thug in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (1990) to his outstanding performance as Chuck Barris in George Clooney’s “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” (2002) to Duncan Jones irreverent film “Moon” (2002) where he channels Bruce Dern from “Silent Running” (1972). Alison Lohman is the perfect susceptible daughter, eager and curious and definitely someone to watch in the way so many young actors showed promise – such as Dakota Fanning, Anna Paquin and Natalie Portman among others.
“Matchstick Men” feels like a much-needed escape from the often overmodulated, overly complicated and relentless landslide epics that come on strong and then fade just as quickly. Nic Cage makes flawed men invitingly sentimental, characteristically actionable in the way he plays neurosis so effortlessly real. Much of the first act is concentrated on structure by design, the hard work of making simplicity look simple, and does meander a bit but not without its charms. Some have had complaints that the film is too stagy, too artificial but that seems silly describing a movie about the setups and take downs of con artists. If you’re conned into watching this moving and not moved a little bit to laugh a little bit then perhaps it has more to do with your distance than any amount of mileage in this movie – to and from familiar, rewarded by Matchstick Men.