Matchstick Men reads like a sizzling, summer novel. Forgive the mixing of artistic genres, but that’s the best way to grasp what’s happening onscreen. As the pages flip (or the reels spin out), you’re left breathlessly waiting to see what happens next.
Like all good grifter movies, Matchstick Men plays the short, visible con against the long, invisible one. As you’re drawn into the seedy world of lies, deception and sleight of hand, you can’t get it out of your head that somebody who should know better is getting big-time conned behind the scenes. But who is it? Is it Roy Waller, the expert flimflam man with an obsessive-compulsive need for order and cleanliness? Is it his smooth partner in crime, Frank Mercer, with that greedy glint in his eye? Is it Roy’s kindhearted new shrink, Dr. Klein? Or is it his ex-wife and never-before seen daughter, Angela?
Discovering that his ex-wife had a baby soon after they split up 14 years prior, Roy becomes entranced with the notion that he can make up for his boorish, uncommunicative past by bonding with Angela. He’s not much of a role model, and he knows it (so does she). But the internal turmoil brings to the forefront of his mind what he “should be,” juxtaposing it with what his is. [Spoiler Warning] That emotional battle ultimately causes him to turn his back on crime, settle down and get a real job. (Of course, that comes later, and it doesn’t stop him from including Angela in a few of his scams, and teaching her tricks of the trade.)
Frank makes the Pope a punch line.
In the movies, con men and cops seem to always congregate in strip clubs. This one is no exception. Roy and Frank use just such a lusty joint to prime their next mark. In the process, moviegoers are subjected to images of bikini-clad pole dancers and waitresses. Men wave money in the air to spur the “performers” on. Elsewhere, Angela bares a bit of cleavage, and Roy’s bare behind peeks through a hospital gown. When Roy expresses reluctance to teach Angela about the con game, she begins to bombard him with stories of her supposed sexual experiences, hoping he’ll get so squeamish he’ll relent (he does). Playful banter between Roy and Frank keeps you guessing about Frank’s sexual orientation (it’s never clear if it’s just macho crassness or sly gay attraction).
An angry mark smacks Roy’s car with his briefcase, grabs at Roy and Angela through the window, and chases them on foot. It looks like Frank was beaten badly (his face is bloody and he spits out blood). A man pulls a gun on Roy and Angela. Angela responds by shooting the man in the gut. Punches are thrown. To create a distraction, Angela smashes a glass at an airport bar. Angry with Roy, she backhands him, knocking him to the ground. Roy talks about wanting to commit suicide.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word and more than a dozen s-words (several of which come from Angela). Other milder profanities are rare, but God’s name is abused repeatedly (Jesus’ close to a half-dozen times). Frank and Angela both make obscene gestures.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Despite Roy’s fixation with cleanliness, he’s a chain smoker. Shots of him puffing away are frequent, and many seem to be trying to celebrate the habit. Angela also lights up, as do Frank and Dr. Klein. At bars and clubs, revelers drink heavily. Specific—close-up—images promote beer, martinis and margaritas. Much to Roy’s shock and chagrin, Angela grabs a beer from his fridge and starts to chug it.
Other Negative Elements
Angela snoops though Roy’s things while he’s away. And just in case it’s not already clear, this movie is about con men who have given themselves over to immoral and illegal behavior.
The writing’s top notch. The acting’s enjoyable. Nicolas Cage borrows half his shtick from Tony Shalhoub’s Adrian Monk, the other half from Joe Mantegna (in 1987’s House of Games), but then he throws in his own extra 20 percent, turning Roy into more than the sum of his parts. Ridley Scott’s deft direction steers around graphic violence and gore (for once), letting the intrigue and emotion shine. But what really got my critic’s eye to gleam was watching Scott suavely reel in one of cinema’s most colorful red herrings. It was a whopper! And tasty to boot.
That makes this especially disappointing: Matchstick Men might be a good yarn well told, but it knocks Jesus’ name around, it giggles over teen sex, leers at exotic dancers, glories in billows of cigarette smoke, and makes matchstick men look really, really cool—until the very last second. That may be the longest con of them all.