A change of pace for Sir Ridley Scott, Matchstick Men is more cerebral than muscular, a movie with neither gladiators nor choppers. Adapted by Nicholas and Ted Griffin from Eric Garcia’s soft-boiled Sun Belt thriller, this is a coolly orchestrated flimflam fandango. The central grifter is Nicolas Cage’s Roy, with Sam Rockwell playing his amiable slobby partner Frank; the dance is complicated once Roy’s long-lost 14-year-old daughter Angela (Alison Lohman) pirouettes onstage.
First seen, Roy and Frank are running a scam where they cold-call their victims, selling wildly overpriced home “water filtration systems” on the basis of nonexistent prizes. The routine is educational—particularly when the guys demonstrate their skill in executing the double play, posing as federal investigators to swindle some poor dupes twice. Artful distraction is the key to a successful con, and Cage does more than that for Matchstick Men, dazzling the viewer with a veritable ob-com sonata based on a plethora of tics, hitches, stutters, twitches, and obscure rituals. (He has to pump the front door three times before he can open it.)
His picture window framing an unused swimming pool is as antiseptic as any painted by David Hockney, Roy lives alone in perfect order. But when he loses his meds, he goes totally manic—cleaning the entire house with a toothbrush. An emergency trip to a new shrink precipitates his reunion with the tomboyish Angela and then a few days of trial child custody. Single-dad sitcom is not Sir Ridley’s forte but, anachronistically evoking the ring-a-ding-ding ambience of Auto Focus and Catch Me If You Can, his mise-en-scène is as impeccable as Roy’s pad. The “Big Con,” as noted by David W. Maurer in his classic treatise of the same name, is essentially a form of theater. So it is here. Too bad that the script trips clumsily over its own cleverness.
Roy and Frank plan to spring the old “Jamaican switch” on a wealthy mark (“you’re the rope, I’m inside”) even as Roy experiments with his new parental role. To con or not to con? The unlikely father and the adorable scamp have been movie perennials since Charlie Chaplin made The Kid in 1921. That Matchstick Men is drier than it might have been is your clue that its chicanery is based on another sort of twist. I’d have to see the movie again to know whether the necessary setup actually exists, but that might mean being conned twice.