Matchstick Men, the new Ridley Scott comedy, is a character study, an examination of yearning loneliness, disguised as a slick comedy/melodrama about con men and the scams they run on their unsuspecting victims. Unlike most con-man movies, plot takes a back seat to character, and what the film lacks in dramatic logic, it makes up for in depth. Scott has never worked so well or so simply with actors.
Nicolas Cage plays Roy Weller, who runs a variety of games with his partner Frank Mercer (Sam Rockwell). The script by Ted and Nicholas Griffin (from a book by Eric Garcia) shows them schmoozing their marks on the phone, telling them they’re guaranteed to win one of three big prizes; all they have to do is invest in a “water-filtration system” (actually a cheap $50 filter; Roy and Frank peel off the price tag and sell it for 10 times the price). Then, they show up in person posing as federal investigators who say they just might be able to nail the bastards who sold the victim those phony water filters—all they need is access to the victim’s bank account.
Roy says he’s only cashing in on people’s greed—that you can’t cheat an honest man. But we don’t buy it, and neither does he; his self-loathing boils over. He’s obsessive-compulsive, opening a door three times before he can go through it (or shutting it three times before he considers it closed). He’s a chain smoker, he’s agoraphobic, and he’s a neurotic neat-freak who spends hours on end with a bottle of 409 and a scouring pad trying to rub a hole in his sliding glass door. Roy keeps all these quirks and tics at bay with black-market medication, but when the pills run out, he finds that the man who prescribed them for him has, also.
Roy and Frank are about to embark on the biggest score of their career; this is no time for Roy’s neurotic quirks to get the best of him, so he has to find a shrink to bring them under control. He winds up with Dr. Klein (Bruce Altman), who wants to know something about Roy before he’ll prescribe for him. Roy tells him about Heather, the wife who left him 14 years before. He knows Heather was pregnant when she left, but he doesn’t know what became of her or the baby or whether the baby was even his. Dr. Klein does some homework on Roy’s behalf and learns that Heather wants nothing to do with him but that Angela, his 14-year-old daughter, wants to meet the father she’s never known.
When Roy meets Angela (Alison Lohman), his facade begins to crack, and he finds himself reaching out to her, irrationally hoping to become a father when he hardly feels like a human being. At the same time, Angela evinces a vicarious fascination with his line of work and wants to get into it herself. Roy knows he should discourage her, but he can’t: He really likes having her along on the game.
The relationship of Roy and Angela is at the heart of Matchstick Men, compensating for the wild twists that the plot goes through in the closing scenes. Ridley Scott deftly finesses those twists, making them satisfying as we watch (it’s only later that the hey-wait-a-minute reaction sets in).
We swallow them because we become emotionally invested in the growing bond between father and daughter and in the hard-boiled, raw-nerved tenderness of Cage’s and Lohman’s performances. Cage’s performance is volatile, almost volcanic; his unique ability to pepper his acting with startling (yet logical) surprises makes Roy a mass of fascinating contradictions.
As Angela, Lohman is a revelation—one minute a snarling, streetwise tomboy and the next a tremulous princess. The last scene between Roy and Angela, long after the cataclysmic resolution of that last scam with Frank, is an astonishing capper, providing one last facet to the two of them that is more than we could have expected.
Matchstick Men is Ridley Scott’s best character-driven movie since Thelma and Louise. In fact, it’s better than that. Roy, Angela and Frank aren’t the loaded symbols Thelma and Louise were; they’re just people out for what they want from life—even when they’re not quite sure what it is.