The Unreal Hustle
There was only ever going to be one reason why I watched "Matchstick Men", that being Nicolas Cage, an actor who I have enjoyed in nearly every movie he has appeared in, and although not the best reason to watch a movie has worked pretty successfully so far. That said, having watched "Matchstick Men" a few times now on DVD it is not just the brilliant performance of Nicolas Cage, which makes it so watch able but also the interesting plot and equally interesting characters, which for me makes "Matchstick Men" an all round entertaining movie.
A phobia stricken con artist, Roy Walker (Nicolas Cage - Windtalkers) and his young partner, Frank Mercer (Sam Rockwell - Charlie's Angels) are on the verge of pulling of one of the most lucrative swindles of their careers. But when Roy's teenage daughter Angela (Alison Lohman - Flicka), from his failed marriage, suddenly appears on the scene, everything in his organized life is thrown into turmoil.
One of the things I like the most about "Matchstick Men" is that it follows a great three part structure, which although seems to lack a little something in the middle section is compensated by a brilliant intro which hooks you right away and a final section which again draws you back in for a very enjoyable last half hour. Right from the opening seconds of "Matchstick Men", it builds up the character of Roy Walker, the films main focus, and within the first 5 minutes we learn that he suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder brought on from his phobias, mainly that of being agoraphobic Of course this is not a laughing matter but the film manages to bring over his problems in such away that it doesn't mock this illness but still makes it light hearted so that it doesn't make the film too serious, all the time building up this fascinating character. Again the film wastes no time in dealing the main facts and we are given a quick glimpse into the world of the con man as Roy and his partner swindle money out of an old couple with a telephone scam. If you are like me, this element of the film is really interesting and throughout the film we get to see different types of hustles which are an eye opening experience at how devious yet simple these cons can be.
Where I feel "Matchstick Men" struggles is in the middle section, where having introduced us to all the main characters as well as the ground work to the big scam it sort of loses its momentum for a bit, and to be honest the first time I watched this I started to get quite fidgety by its meandering about doing nothing. It is in this middle section where the film explores the different sub stories, you learn more about how Roy deals with his condition and to the extent it controls his life. Plus you also get to watch him try and make up for lost time with a daughter who he has never met. Both of these are beautifully explored but do seem to drag slightly losing the wonderful momentum from the opening part. But then it soon picks up pace again and delivers an exceptional final part which grabs you with every single breath of the film. One of the things that have disappointed me with modern cinema is that most of it is completely predictable and unoriginal, thankfully "Matchstick Men" bucks the trend and caught my attention with a series of twists which I can honestly say I never saw coming.
Whilst on it's own the actual plot to the film is brilliant, the way the whole thing comes across from the drama, dialogue, humour and action is absolutely captivating. Usually one of these elements would let the film down but not in the case of "Matchstick Men", especially the dialogue which is incredibly intelligent and meaningful. This may sound strange but not once did it feel like they had included any idle chitter-chatter just to expand the film or fill out moments of quiet. From the snappy dialogue of when a con is going on, through the arguments between Roy and his daughter, as well as the interactions between Roy and a cashier woman in the supermarket, everything had a real meaning and helped towards building up a very watch able film. Likewise with the humour, with a subject matter which features a man's issues with obsessive compulsive disorder, it would have been very easy to overplay this element and make it an uncomfortable viewing experience, but not once did it feel like they were mocking it. But the humour doesn't just focus on Roy's illness and again there are great moments of humour between father and daughter as they learn about each other. I suppose to class it as humour may be a bit misleading as it is more a touch of light heartedness which makes the viewer smile.
What for me is quite a surprise is that "Matchstick Men" never received a single Oscar nomination, especially as for me this is one of Nicolas Cage's finest performances. Usually Cage excels at playing the over the top, full in your face characters, but here he shows that he can tone his act down to fit what is a very complex role. What I really liked was that he became the character, from sounding like a man who knew how to run an effective scam, to the man struggling with his phobia and especially the emotional side of a man who is trying to be a father. Where a lesser actor would have struggled to cope with what is nearly 3 different characters, Cage seems to revel in it and despite ample opportunity to over cook the effect of his condition, from the nervous tick, the need to have a routine and the uncontrollable grunting noises, he controls it impeccably to make the character very engrossing.
Alongside Cage is Sam Rockwell playing his partner and protégé Frank Mercer, a con artist who is always in search of the quick way to make big money. Again this is another highly well thought out character, which provides contrast to the character of Roy. Where Roy is happy to play it safe and is comfortable with the quick low value hustle, Frank wants the big deal which will set him up for life. Not only is the character well thought out but also the performance of Rockwell who I have to admit seems to make one good film for every 2 bad ones.
Making up the ensemble is Alison Lohman as Roy's daughter Angela and is as pivotal to the enjoyment of the film as any of the other actors. Prior to writing this review I had planned to say what a great performance from a teenager, but then whilst checking details on IMDB I learnt that she was actually 23 when she made this film. So I am actually going to say what a stunning performance from a young adult in convincing me I was watching a teenager. Although Nicolas Cage is obviously the main draw for this film, the combination of Cage, Rockwell and Lohman works perfectly, playing of each other brilliantly to the extent that at times Lohman actually steals the show.
There are two final elements to this film which make it so good. Firstly taking the directional helm is Ridley Scott, a man who has given us "Gladiator", "Blade Runner" and "Alien" all good films in there own rights but all extremely very visual affairs. But in this case Scott appears to have controlled his need for big visual scenes and allowed the film to rely mainly on the story and the performances. That is not to say it is not visually impressive, and there are some brilliant snappy edits which help to hold your attention, but compared to many films the whole thing works in a beautiful balance which doesn't detract from the story. The other thing which really worked well for me was the soundtrack which relied heavily on the swing sounds with pieces which included Bobby Darin's "Beyond the Sea" and Sinatra singing "This Town". For me the whole image of these songs and singers fitted the image of con men but then I do enjoy this style of music.
What this all boils down to is that I watched "Matchstick Men" purely for another top quality Nicolas Cage performance, but was treated to what is probably one of the most entertaining movies I have watched in a long-long time. The whole mix of drama, humour, action, combined with some brilliant performances and a plot line which is a refreshing change from the norm makes this not only an exceptionally enjoyable viewing experience but one which I will happily return to again and again. If you enjoy films in the same manner as "Ocean's Eleven" then you are more than likely going to enjoy this, although this is definitely not as glitzy as "Ocean's Eleven".