**/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras B+
starring Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell, Alison Lohman, Bruce McGill
screenplay by Nicholas Griffin & Ted Griffin, based on the novel by Eric Garcia
directed by Ridley Scott
by Walter Chaw The defining Nicolas Cage performance is still the one he delivered in Vampire's Kiss, an indescribably strange film that saw the actor affecting some sort of Algonquin accent and, in the picture's most memorable scene, screaming at his therapist while wearing an ill-fitting set of plastic fangs. For Ridley Scott's highly-anticipated take on the dead-on-its-feet big con formula Matchstick Men (one last score for the grizzled shyster, a young apprentice who's not what he seems, an unexpected and unwise late partner in crime, a big twist telegraphed from the first frame, and so on), Cage seems to have resurrected his perversely hammy turn in that underseen camp classic: screaming at another therapist (Bruce Altman, always good), donning another disguise with an astonishing number of distracting tics and affectations, and ultimately accepting his fate with a sort of fatigued, fatalistic resignation.
Roy (Cage) is a con man, huckster, matchstick man, etc. specializing with his partner Frank (Sam Rockwell) in tricking old people into giving them money. One day, Roy is reunited with long-lost daughter Angela (Alison Lohman), who he gradually brings along into the family business. With one last score in the works, the picture marches along to the drumbeat dictates of this clockwork machination--undermining, for all its character conveniences, a very fine first hour with a resolution so predictable and perfectly timed that it's perfectly boring, perfectly cheap.
Matchstick Men is an interesting companion piece to Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can, as much for its similarities as for its differences. Both sleekly, professionally mounted tales of con men and cons gone bad, both scored with a Rat Pack beat featuring choice bits of vintage Sinatra, both boasting of a uniformly excellent cast and a structure ripe for deconstruction along symbolic, auteurist, parental lines... Where the pieces diverge is that Spielberg plays fair with the irony of Frank Abagnale's "happy ending" while Scott sells us a line of bullshit that is, curiously enough, identical to the line of bullshit Spielberg sells us at the end of Minority Report. There is a water motif in here that suggests the mercurialness of its con artist trio, a dropped coffee cup that works like Hitchcock's dropped matchbook, and a load of suggestions that this profession, like Roger Thornhill's in North by Northwest, is a pretty good allegory for a man without an identity forced to confront his mother/daughter--to grow up, find a mate, settle down.
But more than a tale of late adolescence, Matchstick Men is really just another American Splendor in 2003's desire to enfranchise obsessive-compulsive disorder: ramp up mental illness with a mortal dose of the cutes for ease of mass consumption. In fact, it's that urge to make adorable the dangerous that separates Matchstick Men from Vampire's Kiss (and Catch Me If You Can), so that when the film shifts tone here (as it does in Vampire's Kiss), the audience never quite buys into the shift--a film about putting people on is, at the end, unable to put us on.
All this mild, shrug-worthy disappointment in a film that looks fabulous, is written with wit and an exhilarating tightness (by brothers Ted and Nicholas Griffin, one half of which (Ted) scripted the Ocean's Eleven remake), and performed with the sort of expert showiness that is always diverting and always easier than portraying an actual human being. Details--the relationship that Roy has with an anonymous grocery store checker, the feeling genuine that Roy regrets missing the first fourteen years of his daughter's life--enchant, though--or they can now and again. To parse a typically expert, typically curiously empty line from the picture, Matchstick Men isn't a bad film, it just isn't a particularly good one. It's a Sting for the new millennium, and who knew we needed one?
by Bill Chambers Warner releases Matchstick Men on a DVD I wouldn't exactly characterize as a home run. Make that DVDs--there are three separate editions of Matchstick Men available on the format: widescreen, full screen, and CD + DVD, which bundles the widescreen disc together with the original soundtrack. We received the standalone widescreen version, a dual-layer platter sporting the film, a commentary, a 3-part, 52-minute making-of, and the original theatrical trailer. Ridley Scott's name has become synonymous with top-drawer technical presentations, but Matchstick Men's 2.35:1 anamorphic video isn't quite on a par with that of the Black Hawk Down DVD or even the Director's Cut of Alien: It's not often that the transfer is razor sharp, and black level doesn't seem to have tremendous range--dark areas of the image lack gradation. On the other hand, edge-enhancement is kept to a minimum (if still apparent). The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is even more disappointing, at least aesthetically: If anything pegs the film as a comedy, it's the front-heavy, bass-light mix.
Scott and co-writers Ted and Nicholas Griffin (recorded together but separately from Scott) squander a feature-length yakker on plot regurgitation. I guess Scott ultimately shared the track because he didn't have that much to say; although the Griffin brothers are marginally more entertaining, once they've recapped their screenplay's dalliance with Robert Zemeckis, who almost directed and is basically responsible for the structure of the draft that was shot (he remains listed as executive producer), they, like Scott, fall into the trap of narrating the film. Meanwhile, Scott's mainstay supplementals producer Charles de Lauzirika brings us "Tricks of the Trade: Making Matchstick Men", a triptych documentary whose thirds can be watched individually or consecutively.
Taken as a whole, it's a bubbly piece, yet the highlights are few and far between. Those of "Pre-Production" (25 mins.) include Alison Lohman getting fitted for a hat that facilitates an ice-breaking Hannibal reference/joke and Ridley stopping to greet any Jack Russell terrier that crosses his path during the location scout, while in "Production" (28 mins.), Ridley and assistant director K.C. Hodenfield lose their cool, the former when the camera jams in the middle of an intense take, the latter when a sound recordist climbs into the trunk of a car surreptitiously and without regard for his safety. "Post-Production" (19 mins.) is probably the most interesting segment, as we learn that Hans Zimmer had to scrap his first stab at a score (shades of Jerry Goldsmith's experiences with Scott) and glimpse portions of deleted scenes that had aimed to tease audiences with hints of the film's outcome. Originally published: February 15, 2004.