During their first lunch together, Angela (Alison Lohman), the fourteen year old daughter that Roy Waller (Nicolas Cage) never knew he had advises her estranged father that, “If you’re gonna get wet, might as well go swimming.” Quickly audiences realize that in addition to the elbows she claims to have inherited from Roy, Angela also received his gift for words, improvisation and willingness to go against societal norms. On the surface, it doesn’t seem to be a job requirement for his cover position as an antiques dealer but it makes a whole lot more sense for Roy’s real source of income as a confidence man—a job in which he rationalizes is different than that of a thief since he doesn’t actually take people’s money and instead is given it. Running a successful short con operation with his flashier, money hungry younger protégé Frank Mercer (Sam Rockwell whose character was named for Sinatra and Mercer), Roy swindles his victims with promises of lavish prizes, using such smoothness and conviction that most remain unaware of his secret life as a severely obsessive compulsive man complete with phobias and facial tics who spirals out of control when he runs out of his illegal medication.
Staging an informal intervention with his reclusive boss, Frank sends Roy to psychiatrist Dr. Klein (Bruce Altman) who struggles at first but soon manages to engage his new patient in talk therapy wherein divorced Roy reveals that he may have had a child with his ex. Klein, acting on Roy’s behalf, makes a phone call and soon Roy meets his tomboyish, rebellious daughter Angela who becomes an uninvited fixture at his home after their awkward meeting leads to a fast bond. This affection for his long-absent daughter inspires confidence in Roy (essential, of course, for a confidence man) who suddenly decides to work with Frank on his dream long-con currency scam with their mark, the wealthy “boat guy” Chuck Frechette (Bruce McGill).
Intriguingly, the film works not only in the mode of a successful con game but also as a riveting, hip, surprisingly funny and emotional character study of Roy's journey as he discovers more about himself when he takes on the responsibility of fatherhood to the daughter he never knew he’d wanted.
A fresh and fast paced movie from Ridley Scott, who, taking a break from his large-scale epics like Kingdom of Heaven and Gladiator, manages to dazzle audiences with the intricate artistry of the work elevated by the great score from Hans Zimmer (that was inspired by the comical Fellini movies), clever cutting from Memento editor Dody Dorn and a great script from Nicholas and Ted Griffin based on the novel by Eric Garcia, of which Cage bought the rights before it was even published.
Of course, when Nicolas Cage is in a movie, our main focus is on him as he evokes our empathy right from the get-go but it’s also a worthy showcase for White Oleander twenty-something star Lohman (who fooled Scott into believing she was a kid during the audition) and charismatic character actor Sam Rockwell whose role seems to be an extension from his portrayal of Chuck Barris in George Clooney's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Recently I showed the film as part of my Library Discussion Series and learned from the audience that Matchstick Men may very well require additional viewings and at least a day of contemplation afterwards to fully unravel Ridley Scott’s complicated web but it is well worth it. The film so impressed critics during its 2003 release that Leonard Maltin listed the movie in his “Films You May Have Missed” section of his 2007 Movie Guide.
Note: Film students will love the eye-opening three part feature length behind the scenes extra that documents the filmmaking process from pre-production, to on-set production and post-production which is not only truly fascinating but much cheaper than NYU or USC film school tuition.