(Did this review for The Statesman a couple of years ago. Am posting it here to link to the Bluffmaster review.)
Now that the dazzling three-ring circus called Oscar 2003 has rolled on, we can allow ourselves to contemplate the less hyped, un-nominated but equally meritorious movies of the past few months. Placing high on that heap is Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men, a beautifully written and acted film that will, hopefully, gain popularity through word of mouth and not just fade away after a week’s run.
Matchstick Men begins by introducing us to Roy (Nicolas Cage) and his partner Frank (Sam Rockwell), who earn their living by pulling off sophisticated, often labyrinthine, con jobs. Roy, as it happens, also suffers from various neuroses, including obsessive-compulsive disorder. He’s the sort who keeps his money in a plastic dog in his living room, frets maniacally on seeing a loose thread or a stain, and confesses that during his panic attacks he feels like blowing his brains out but “I worry about what it would do to my carpet”.
Meanwhile, just as the movie itself has conned us into thinking it might be a heist flick, it switches gear. Roy’s life takes an unexpected new turn as he meets – for the first time – his 14-year-old daughter Angela (Alison Lohman), the result of a brief, unhappy marriage. Even as he tries to cope with an unfamiliar paternal role, he finds that Angela is intrigued by his “work” and wants to help out. But what might the repercussions be when a hoax concocted by Roy and Frank doesn’t go according to the script, and Angela is caught in the mess?
What the answer to that question is, and where the film goes from here, is best left for the viewer to discover but it’s enough to say that Matchstick Men straddles – and transcends – genres with extraordinary ease. You never know in what direction it’s going to take you, but you go along for the ride because it’s so consistently engrossing.
The acting is top-drawer. Rockwell (who was wonderful in George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind last year) is good as the wisecracking Frank, and so is young Lohman, but this is Nicolas Cage’s film through and through. Cage is astonishing in one of his best roles – for my money, his performance is better than at least two of this year’s best actor Oscar nominees. Many actors would flounder with the facial tics and uncontrollable twitches that accompany Roy’s medical condition, overplaying them so that they became the focal point of the performance. But Cage incorporates them so seamlessly that they remain mere accessories – supplementing, rather than delineating, a completely believable portrait of a man trying to cope with his many roles.
The writing and direction is near-perfect too; in fact, there’s very little one can find fault with in this movie. Admittedly, the climactic twist is a little improbable, and very cynical for that matter. But the movie’s final moments do leaven it somewhat; we are left with the satisfying sense that Roy’s experiences have had a therapeutic effect on him. And that he has probably acquired better appreciation of a remark he flippantly made earlier in the film: “Crime does pay, but not much.”