(Originally posted on 3/4/06)
Ridley Scott’s career has, with a few notable exceptions (Alien, Blade Runner), been a case of style over substance. Scott, who came to prominence directing flashy commercials for the likes of Apple computer and Channel, is one of the cinema’s foremost visual artists, but he’s usually at a loss when it comes to infusing his luscious images with anything more than a superficial, calorie-free vacancy. Matchstick Men is further confirmation of Scott’s limitations, but it’s also a lot more fun than most of the director’s pompously inflated output. Roy (Nicolas Cage) is an expert con man plagued by obsessive compulsive disorder who never saw a door he didn’t want to open or close three times, or a carpet he didn’t want to protect from muddy shoe prints. He’s a prisoner of his compulsions, which compel him to eat tuna fish by the barrel, religiously scrub his apartment Lysol-clean, and dispose of two leaves found floating on top of his crystal blue pool by shoving them down his kitchen sink garbage disposal. With his protégé Frank (Sam Rockwell), Roy helps bilk little old ladies out of money using a telephone scam, but the stakes are raised once Frank suggests they go after a big score. Their plans are complicated, however, by the sudden appearance of Roy’s 14-year old daughter Angela (a stunning Alison Lohman), who immediately takes to her long-lost dad’s criminal profession like a thief to big bags of $$$.
As in a sturdy noir potboiler, the second Roy attempts to improve his lot in life by overstepping his boundaries for a little extra cash, it’s pretty clear that he’s headed straight into the gutter. And considering Nicholas and Ted Griffin’s script’s debt to David Mamet, it’s tough not to sniff out the surprise con lurking beneath the action’s shiny surface. Fortunately, Matchstick Men’s liveliness is derived not from its unpredictability but from its spirit of dapper ‘50s cool. Scott, working with cinematographer John Mathieson, illuminates everything with sleek, stainless steel blues and sunburst bright yellows, and there are few directors that compose in widescreen quite as beautifully (check out the early scene in which Roy and Frank, sitting in a car, are perfectly separated in the frame by a sparkling reflection from another car windshield). The soundtrack’s old standards working in tandem with James Michael Dooley and Geoff Zanelli’s frivolously bouncy score, the retro minimalism of Roy’s house, Roy’s plaid short-sleeve button-down shirts, and Dody Dorn’s jazzy editing and scene transitions all complement the mood of debonair Rat Pack-ish charm. Lohman, who showed superstar potential in the otherwise forgettable White Oleander, is a radiant delight, but it’s Cage’s performance that helps distract from the film’s conventional twisty-turny narrative. Roy’s tics and twitches are a veritable grab bag of enticing acting gimmicks, but Cage transcends these showy gesticulations by rooting Roy’s problems not in irrational craziness but rather in anguished feelings of shame and insecurity. As he and Angela begin to form a father-daughter bond, Roy’s spastic gestures slowly subside, and the beauty of Cage’s masterful work is that he makes the transition not seem as blatantly schematic as it is.