Is the Con King?

Matchstick Men

I had an amazing moment watching Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men.

When the movie’s twist was revealed, I immediately felt cheated. I’ve seen a few con-artist films in my day, and this one — which had seemed so promising and interesting and different — was suddenly just the same as David Mamet’s, particularly House of Games.

That’s not to say the con isn’t well done. Screenwriters Ted and Nicholas Griffin, working from a book by Eric Garcia, pull it off seemingly effortlessly, and you’ll kick yourself for not having figured it out from the start. (Or perhaps you did have its number from the start. I’m a sucker.)

But the con wasn’t satisfying; I’d seen it before, and I felt like I’d wasted my time with the movie.

The trouble was that Matchstick Men is set up as a human drama as much as a shell game, and suddenly it was all about the con and not at all about the people. And I was angry. Then, almost as quickly as my disappointment flared up — and this is the important part — it disappeared.

(Forgive me in advance for being so coy about the plot, because I don’t want to give it away.)

Nicolas Cage plays Roy, a con artist — don’t call him a criminal — who has more money than he can ever spend. He works small-time scams with Frank (Sam Rockwell), who isn’t nearly so well-off and is dying to pull a big score. Roy is hesitant. He doesn’t want to mess with the long con.

So far, so boring. But Roy has obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and you can imagine Cage’s eyes lighting up at the thought of all the great tics he could throw in — and the trouble OCD can cause in the middle of a con when thousands (or hundreds of thousands of dollars) are on the line.

Then Roy accidentally knocks his medicine down the sink, and without his pills, he goes into a weeklong cleaning frenzy. When Frank finds him, he gives him the number of a shrink (Bruce Altman, born to play psychiatrists) who should be able to set him up.

But the doctor won’t give Roy his beloved pills without a conversation, and during his session Roy reveals that he might have a child from a previous relationship, and that part of his unhappiness might stem from never knowing his kid. But Roy is so petrified of his past that he enlists the doctor to call his old girlfriend. And from that call, Roy learns that he has a 14-year-old daughter, Angela (Alison Lohman). And as he gets to know his daughter, he becomes more open to Frank’s big score.

This could lead to all sorts of painfully cute criminals-raising-kids bullshit, and it’s to Matchstick Men’s credit that it never stoops quite that low. Sure, Roy teaches Angela how to con, and he indulges her in a way only movie characters do, and through her he learns that not everything has to be neat and clean and tidy, and it is a bit much. And Nicolas Cage is Nicolas Cage and Ridley Scott is Ridley Scott, and neither can leave well enough alone; the film is so decorated in tics and style and pop music that the interesting core is sometimes obscured.

But the beauty of the movie is that by fusing the con with the newness of parenthood with OCD, it earns a quirky, unpredictable quality. You’re never quite sure where it’s going to go or how it’s going to resolve itself.

Yet con movies are by necessity anti-naturalistic. They must be carefully designed, set up, and constructed, and they do not allow for character growth because the premise of the con is that people need to act the way we expect them to act for it to work. They play you, and every detail is an integral part of the game.

So there was an interesting tension in Matchstick Men between the messy story of Roy of and neatness of the con that unfolds. And the con is done in such a low-key manner — it really isn’t that complicated, and it sure as hell isn’t new or bold — that the story seems certain to resolve itself on more of a human level.

And then ... it nearly falls apart. When the game is up, I was certain that the qualities that I’d liked about the movie — basically, the character of Roy having a car wreck of crises (personal, professional, medical) and trying to muck through them — were gone. The con was king.

But, much to my surprise, the movie saved itself. Instead of a short denouement, there’s another whole chapter left, and Matchstick Men once again becomes more about Roy than his work.

It’s a beautiful, quiet closing, and a fitting way to end the con that is the movie. While it distracts the audience with some plot sleight-of-hand, Matchstick Men never really leaves Roy’s side. He is its subject.

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