My Buddy is a Cage – Matchstick Men (2003)

I’ll watch anything with Sam Rockwell in it. Duncan Jones safely saw to that. It’s through fortunate happenstance then that this week’s film has Nic Cage in it, too. And yes, this is the form my delusion is taking.

On the subject of my many delusions, I feel I must admit to another one, for my prior understanding of Cage needs an addendum. Before I believed that nothing short of a gag and a commanding director were required to keep the hammy actor at bay. I was wrong:

Roy Waller (Cage) is a con man in a perpetual state of half-insanity, as he suffers from a series of nervous tics and a terrible bout of obsessive compulsive disorder; not the best combo for soloing a heist. Fortunately, his partner Frank Mercer (Rockwell) is a much better public face for this two-man operation. At the behest of Frank, Roy sees a new psychiatrist (Bruce Altman) who suggests the eccentric matchstick man come to terms with past mistakes, a process that leads him to connect with his now teenage daughter Angela (Alison Lohman).

I would divulge into more of the plot but it’s really best if one goes into this film knowing as little as possible. Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Eric Garcia’s novel fancies itself a sleek, smart-assed heist film, and if you were to switch to Olympic basketball exhibition games after fifteen minutes, you’d probably agree. Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mercer, and Bobby Darin all saturate Matchstick Men, nearly to the point of watering it down as a derivative copycat hot on the heels of 2002’s most excellent Catch Me If You Can. To its credit though, this is a film that works very well on two separate levels. 

As evidenced by that half-synopsis, there is a human element to the relationships explored here. Alison Lohman is convincing as all hell, playing a 14 year old girl despite being 22 at the time. With Cage’s nervous tics and a sanitary penchant that would even rival Howard Hughes, this script faced a very real threat of devolving their bond into a clone of I Am Sam. Fortunately, it never goes there, and that’s mainly thanks to that second level.

After all, it wouldn’t be a heist film without a con. Rarely do I miss an opportunity to polish Christopher Nolan’s cinematic shaft, but it’s not a stretch to suggest that Matchstick Men is the ‘grifter’s equivalent’ of The Prestige. The latter is a cerebral fable of obsession and dedication, specifically to magic illusions, and precisely because the film itself doubles as sleight of hand. Matchstick’s story is a ruse, too, right from that slicked back opening credit sequence. You might think you have this film figured out, as did I, but probably only a portion of it. 

One of at least 150 “Best of Nic Cage” YouTube videos out there — if I were making an educated guess — features a scene from Matchstick Men, and while it is very Cage-y, it occurs when Roy is at a breaking point, so I buy it. Having just botched a pretty big con, Roy discovers that he’s all out of the pink pills Bruce Altman’s been handing him under the table. Of course, all those twitches and kicks eventually catch up to him. And of course, one can pass time by obsessively sterilizing apartment furniture for only so long. Thus, Roy Waller’s trip to the pharmacy:

Spielberg will always have a sleak, polished feel that so rarely delves into the controversial. At first, I didn’t understand what attracted to Scott to this project, but I think this might be part of it. Despite the easy listening soundtrack and its starched and collared presentation on the surface, Matchstick Men ain’t afraid to get its hands dirty, so the sly touch of menace here separates it from Catch Me If You Can. This isn’t a feel-good story so much as it is a balancing act, a temporary one of course, as all good heist films show the temptation of that EXIT sign. By the end, we know Roy’s winking at us; it’s just before then where those winks might be tics.

* * * * *

Want more Cage? You got it.


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