MATCHSTICK MEN (2003) – Nicolas Cage delivers the goods

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Matchstick Men is that rarity I live for, a fascinating character study that’s unpredictable yet completely plausible. Kudos are deserved all around, starting with Nicholas and Ted Griffin’s screenplay (from Eric Garcia’s book), surely one of the snappiest scripts to be committed to film in recent years.

The next bouquet goes to Nicolas Cage. It’s not exactly novel to say that Cage plays quirky characters, but this one takes the prize. Cage plays Roy, a con man who mentally pays for his success by having a disorder that’s so obsessive-compulsive, he makes Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets look like a Disney character. But as tic-ridden as Roy is, Cage fully inhabits his character, showing how Roy uses his brilliance at con artistry to make up for his utter lack of composure in every other aspect of his life.

Then there’s Alison Lohman as Angela, the teenaged daughter Roy never knew he had. Usually when a scriptwriter or an actress wants to convey a troubled teen, they use a sort of cliched shorthand, with the result that the teenager usually has the scruples of a hooker. But Angela, while hardly an angel, eventually becomes endearing in her own way–to Roy and to the audience.

All down the line, the miracles continue. Sam Rockwell as Roy’s cool-as-ice partner, Bruce McGill as their next target…there’s not a bum actor in the entire cast. You get the feeling that the full-bodied screenplay put all of these actors on their toes. The joy that their characters feel as matchstick men seem to reflect the joy the actors had in finding such a delicious script.

And then there’s Ridley Scott, a director not known for deft comedy or deep characterization. But for once, his heavy sense of style contributes to the movie’s overall feeling instead of weighing it down. The movie is nearly two hours long but moves like a house afire.

On a final note, the movie’s ending is bound to cause some controversy in some quarters, in that it seems to come out of left field. It’s surprising, to be sure, but when you think back on it, it plays just as fair with the audience as the offbeat characters did. Matchstick Men emerges as an utterly pleasant surprise all around.

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