|Well let me start by saying Hully Gee! This has been a nightmare of a week somewhere on the pain scale between a snow shovel full of turtle guano to the face and a Sugar Ray concert without anesthetic. I could go into some severe details here, but let's just say this... my week was a cheese-grater to the groin in front of a bus-load of cheerleaders. In short... I could really use a Hollywood twist ending.
Well, I didn't get one!
However, I did get to pick my daughter up from school and trek straight on over to the Century Theatre to watch the Matinee of Matchstick Men. Now I've heard of Twist Endings, but this twist could braid the pigtails on Rupunzel! Chubby Checkers can't twist like this. Look, I've been nabbed by a plot before, and some of you out there have emailed me to say you figured it all out or saw it coming... well horse hockey on ice. But if you feel the need to gloat, go ahead and email me here!
Matchstick Men is the story of an annoying confidence man (AKA Matchstick Man) named Roy Waller (Nicolas Cage at his silliest since the Charlie Bodell days) and his Sidekick/ Partner/ ProtÚgÚ Frank Mercer (Sam Rockwell at his silliest since the Sam Rockwell days*). Together they run a telemarketing bait and switch scheme (making them just below "jail janitor," "juvie hall snitch," and "house minority leader" on the social strata) amongst other creepy and nasty business tricks. Cage's Waller is different from your typical movie con-man in that he has a problem... well, six-hundred problems. You name a psychological problem and he has it... from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder to Ticks to... God only knows. While this is pretty irritating for a while, it's nothing compared to the goof-fest it appears to be in the trailer (every tick of the 116 minutes in 30 seconds). Primarily his issues are spawned by guilt at his chosen profession which lands him in a shrink's office.
It turns out that Waller might just have a kid from the Ex-Wife who left him, and doesn't want to ever see him again. And it turns out that his daughter is dying to meet him. And meet him she does. Alison Lohman plays Angela who is excited as Santana with a Rob Thomas contract to get into Roy-Daddy's life. If you can just imagine an obsessive compulsive cleaner who chain-smokes and owns no television suddenly becoming the role model for a fourteen year old girl you just might have an idea of the tip-toeing and slow warming he has to go through in his impression of Walter Matthau in Little Miss Marker (What? What, too obscure?)
Along the way Roy teaches Angela a few tricks of the trade (with a little reluctance) and falls for the Dad angle he's been missing hook, line and sinker. It's the greatest, biggest con that's waiting, and it might be too big for both their britches. It's great fun watching these two get to know each other in a vaguely irreverent and oddball way. Lohman's excellent performance makes an otherwise unlikable guy likeable, and Cage is fine showing the changes (for the better) Waller has.
The most watchable scenes of the film contain Lohman interacting with Cage and that's quite a good thing. Lohman is a wonderful actress in everything she does. She was great in the TV show Pasadena, incredible in White Oleander and is dead on here. Though she's 24 at the time of this writing she plays fourteen just perfectly and believably, but the grown woman she really is peeks through when needed. Cage is likewise really good. No matter what role he's in he's unmistakably Cage. Sure he's a good actor, but he's only good at playing himself. I don't care if it's Peggy Sue Got Married playing Mickey Mouse or Leaving Las Vegas playing my Uncle Bob, he's always recognizable as the same guy. Luckily this part is perfect for Cage, and like in every movie, I tend to like who Cage is. It takes Cage to make such a sleazy clown worthy of being rooted for. Rockwell is good as the scheming con man under Roy's tutelage. He's funny, but seldom terribly likeable. He does a perfect job becoming Frank in every way. Again, Frank is a lot like most of Rockwell's portrayals , but, hey, Rockwell is fun, no? If this were a contest an honorable mention goes to Bruce Altman as the psychiatrist, Dr. Klein. He's excellent. Oh, I almost forgot... that guy who played D-Day in Animal House is in it.
Director Ridley Scott (have you heard of him? Young... upstart...) keeps a faceted script perfectly balanced and strong enough to fool you more than once (this is a Con Art after all). Scriptwriters Nicholas Griffin & Ted Griffin obviously understood author Eric Garcia's novel Matchstick Men to create such an intricate tale with humor and grace. While I haven't read the novel, the script is a winner.
Far be it from me to point out any flaws in a Scott film, but there are a couple. Rockwell and Cage are pretty deplorable characters (at least initially) and I can imagine quite a lot of the audience finding them impossible to root for. Further, I wasn't quite as enamored by the meandering plot until the beginning of the end. Like a mirror-opposite image of Identity, the ending here makes the entire rest of the movie worth it, so stay in your seats, true-believers! If you're looking for one of those true-life-adventures, watch the Discovery Channel because this isn't it. In fact it's almost like the Grifter's Fairy Tale. There are some flaws in the film, but taking it as a fairy tale (and taking the tornado twist of an ending into account) this is really pretty forgivable.
Up until the end this was shooting for only three stars, but, as the ending actually removes the chocolate from the milk after the spoon has done it's job, I have to give old Ridley Four Stars out of five. Lohman makes this film great as both a kid and as an adult and the rest of the cast is pretty darned good. Don't forget you heard it here first... Alison Lohman is going places. God Willing she'll keep making good movies like this and White Oleander and never get the captain-trips ego that so many of the goods and greats tend to get. Counting her out would be as smart as serving ribs and salads in the theatre... bottom line... a messy proposition. Luckily Matchstick Men is anything but messy! Thank you again for contributing to my delinquency again... good night! Again!
*BOO-YEAH! That's right, I said it!