Matchstick Men combines the complex plotting of a con-game caper with a somewhat sentimental story of redemption-via-parenthood.
Roy (Nicholas Cage) and his partner Frank (Sam Rockwell) are an odd partnership of grifters, running scams involving $50 water filtration systems sold for $400 with promises of prizes like diamond rings and Riviera vacations.
Frank is an easy going slob, contrasted with Roy’s obsessive-compulsive neatness. Removing two stray leaves from his swimming pool provides Roy an almost spiritual release. His closet full of cleaning materials, lined up in perfect display, would put a window dresser to shame. He’s also a chain smoker (which seems somewhat contradictory to his compulsive cleanliness), he’s got a collection of tics so varied he must have grown extra facial muscles, and he’s an agoraphobe as well.
When Roy accidentally drops his downers down the disposal, he’s in desperate need of relief. Frank recommends a shrink who prescribes the needed pills, but also gets Roy involved in some non-chemical therapy. Divorced for 14 years, Roy knew that his wife was pregnant when they split; now he finds out that he has adaughter, Angela (Alison Lohman), who wants to meet him.
Naturally, a teenager is going to be a major threat to a guy for whom neatness and cleanliness are matters of ritual necessity. But Angela is beguiling and she’s emotionally needy, too. A connection develops between them which, of course, will lead to unexpected changes.
The con in Matchstick Men works with Mamet-like convolutions and a strong element of surprise, but afterthoughts can rather easily punch a few holes in the plotting (which Mamet would never allow). The screenplay, from a novel by Eric Garcia, gives only enough backstory on Roy to fulfill the requirements of the plot and makes no attempt to explain or provide background on his psychological disorder. Cage makes the most of what he’s given, but Roy never becomes a fully realized character. Director Ridley Scott must take responsibility for the overuse of the tics and obsessive-compulsive behaviors. He plays them for humor, but the laughs stop long before the twitches do. (The character of Frank isn’t developed at all.)
Alison Lohman (who is in her early 20’s) makes a thoroughly convincing 14-year-old. Her abundant charm makes Angela enormously likable, even accompanied by the character’s normal teenage transgressions. The chemistry between Angela and Roy works well, so their relationship and the changes that it brings to Roy’s character become the strongest elements of the film.
With the talent involved, Matchstick Men raised hopes for a knockout on the order of Cage’s triumph last year in Spike Jonze’s brilliant Adaptation. Scott instead delivers a competent commercial entertainment which will probably please the crowds at the megaplexes, but is essentially unremarkable.