For a box office hit, “Matchstick Men,” an adaptation of the Eric Garcia novel, is weirdly, and refreshingly, different. Incorporating OCD, con artistry, tuna fish, and adolescence as effortlessly as, well, stealing candy from a baby (or money from the elderly, as the case may be), it’s a deviation, certainly, for the movie’s two main men. Director Ridley Scott, of “Black Hawk Down,” “Hannibal,” and “Gladiator,” takes the testosterone down a notch and succeeds; the result is part drama, part comedy, and part something else entirely. Nicolas Cage, of “Adaptation” and “Con Air,” plays Roy Walker, an obsessive-compulsive, agoraphobic chain smoker suffering from Tourette’s and countless other contrived maladies.
He’s a con artist, a matchstick man — not quite a thief, he explains, because he only takes what people willingly give him. As the movie begins, Roy and his partner — the flighty but strangely endearing Frank, played by Sam Rockwell — are scamming elderly couples, smooth-talking their way into bucks, big or otherwise. Thanks to some freakish turn of events involving pink pills and a sink-o-rater, Roy’s neuroses intensify and, with much prompting on Frank’s part, Roy agrees to see a shrink, Dr. Klein (Bruce Altman). Through Dr. Klein’s initially unwanted probing, we learn a bit of personal history: Roy’s wife left him while she was pregnant, and they haven’t made contact since. Roy soon finds himself reunited with his now 14-year-old daughter, Angela (Alison Lohman), who turns his life literally upside down; he starts eating — brace yourself — pizza; his refrigerator which is, under normal circumstances, stocked solely with tuna fish, also undergoes a drastic makeover (the addition of Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk ice cream).
It’s your typical father-daughter reunion with a few added twists; while struggling to adapt to haphazard new living arrangements, Roy has to play the father figure while simultaneously serving as a role model. Though the first half of the plot borders precariously on melodrama with cliched lines like “I’m not very good at being a dad — I barely get by being me,” it — somewhat miraculously — still works, thanks to underlying cynicism and welcome bouts of humor. Twenty-three-year-old Lohman, who played Astrid in last year’s “White Oleander,” isn’t too shabby either; she pulls off the whole naughty-nice thing rather compellingly and the performance, by both Lohman and Cage, ultimately ends up more touching than nauseating.
The film speeds up and gets interesting at its halfway point, as Roy and Frank take on a bigger, more ambitious business venture with a greedy Spearmint Rhino patron, played by Bruce McGill. Angela, who has a fascination with — and, apparently, a hereditary gift for — her father’s line of work, conveniently decides to tag along, and things get complicated — fast. The outcome is completely unexpected and pretty darn clever, though the ending, which fast-forwards a year, is a little too Hollywood and a smidgen too upbeat. Even so, “Matchstick Men” isn’t bad; it even borders on ingenious at times.
Visually, it works. Scott weaves together brilliant backdrops, all at once tense, empty, and suburban-feeling; the camera angles, colors, and visual cues add to the film’s overall quality. The music of Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin, which initially seems out of place, nevertheless adds style.
The actors, along with the characters they play, deserve praise. Cage, who should have been flogged for “Con Air” and “City of Angels,” does better — much better — this time around. In the oddball vein of Ben Sanderson of “Leaving Las Vegas,” he plays the part of Roy — with facial tics and all — a little too convincingly. (Not that anyone’s complaining.) Roy is complex and multi-dimensional: there’s the fast-talking Roy, the one grannies hand crisp Ben Franklins to; the neurotic Roy, who stares at his carpet for days at a time; and the father Roy, who doesn’t have the slightest idea of how to be a role model for a 14-year-old adolescent. Cage not only manages to completely embody the character of Roy, with all of his complexities and eccentricities, he does it compellingly. Lohman, again, gives a commendable performance. Rockwell is slick and debonair, in a swindling, two-faced criminal sort of way, and McGill brilliantly does the psycho businessman justice.
Despite the soft ending, “Matchstick Men” draws good performances from Cage and Lohman and is, for the most part, worth it. No scam. Promise.