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Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2003
The art of the con, Hollywood-style
"Matchstick Men" is being billed in Japan as a kon eiga. Looking at the pairing of 40-year-old Nicholas Cage with 14-year-old Allison Lohman, one might suspect the "kon" in question is rori-kon. But rest assured, theirs is a father-daughter relationship and not "Lolita" redux. Rather this is the "kon" of "con artist" or "confidence man," a professional scamster who gains your trust before ripping you off.
Bravo for truth in advertising, for "Matchstick Men" -- directed by Ridley Scott who's trying his hand at yet another genre -- is indeed a "con movie." Its techniques are identical to those of the slick con artist, hoping that if he's charming enough and talks fast enough, that you won't know that you've been cheated until it's too late. But cheated you will be, by a clever-clever script that wants you to think it's heading toward a surprising "Usual Suspects" sort of finale, but doesn't deliver.
Cage plays Roy Waller, a skilled con-man who also happens to suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder. When he's not cheating little old ladies out of their life savings through elaborate tele-scams (of the "you've won a trip to Hawaii, and all you have to do to claim it is" type), he's triple-checking all the locks on his doors, or hygienically sealing used tuna cans in plastic before gingerly disposing of them. Only medication allows him to keep his disorder in check.
One day while washing the dishes, Roy spills his pills down the drain. A quick call to Roy's shrink reveals that he's left town, and soon Roy is freaking out completely. Frank (Sam Rockwell), Roy's partner and only friend, comes by to convince him to return to work. After managing to get Roy to open the door, Frank recommends another shrink. Roy reluctantly goes to see him and starts to open up about what troubles him, namely his break-up with his ex-wife, and the daughter he's never seen.
The shrink advises Roy to confront his past, and that means finding and meeting his daughter. And so sassy 14-year-old Angela (Lohman) comes into Roy's life like a whirlwind, bringing chaos to his neatly ordered existence. While Angela manages to get Roy to eat something besides tuna and to chill out about crumbs on the carpet, Roy for his part wises up his offspring, teaching her the fine art of the scam. He positively beams with parental pride when she expertly cons a mark in the laundromat with a fake "winning" lottery ticket.
Of course, the moral corruption of youth is not where a Hollywood film is going these days, so we know Roy's due for a fall. This comes when he brings her along to act as a distraction on a very dodgy heist involving a quick switch of bags, one full of money, one not. The mark catches them before they're clear, and comes raging after them with murder in his eyes.
So far, so good. Lohman and Cage have pretty decent chemistry, and the sort of zingy humor you'd expect from a film that's got almost nothing but Frank Sinatra on the soundtrack. Rockwell, meanwhile, reprises the slightly sleazy charisma he brought to his role as Chuck Barris in "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind."
But when we get to the end, we find that the script -- by Ted Griffin, who also penned "Ocean's 11" -- collapses like the proverbial house of cards. Griffin premises an entire elaborate conspiracy on Roy spilling those pills, but no plan can ever be based on an accident. Similarly, other twists rely on things like Roy getting a placebo effect from fake medication that he's given, something no complex scheme could factor in with certainty. Basically, its logic disappears like mist in the sun if you think about if for, oh, say, about 10 seconds.
Yes, but we're not supposed to think! That's the mantra of contemporary Hollywood thrillers, where the shock and awe of the surprising last reel, where every character turns out to be something other than you'd expected, is supposed to numb us into submission. "Memento," almost alone among recent thrillers, is one you can go back and watch from the start again, knowing how it's going to end, and still feel like it makes sense.
Ranting at Hollywood films for not making sense may be simply tilting at windmills, but the beauty of a scam lies in its structure, intelligence, creativity and daring. "Matchstick Men" has about as much of all that as one of those e-mails from a Nigerian dictator's son.