Adapted by Nicholas and Ted Griffin from Eric Garcia's book, Matchstick Men is the story of Roy Waller (Nicolas Cage), a lifelong flim-flam man who has always flown under the radar of the law because he has so assiduously stuck to the small con. Currently, he and his partner, Frank Mercer (Sam Rockwell), are working a scheme to sell water filtration systems at 10 times their retail price, then pose as federal agents out to catch themselves so they can bilk their dupes out of still more money. The picture makes us uneasy with the way it nudges us to side with the grifters as they manipulate their marks.
Roy's saving grace is that he's uneasy, too. He's become a cauldron of neuroses that manifest themselves in tics and barks and an obsessive-compulsive disorder worse than the one Jack Nicholson battled in As Good As It Gets. Also, we learn, Roy has had a lousy romantic life. He hasn't had a relationship with a woman since his wife left him 15 years ago, and he doesn't know if the child she was carrying at the time was ever born. All these torments lead him to a shrink (Bruce Altman) who arranges for him to meet his daughter, Angela (Alison Lohman), now 14 and a little wild but apparently a decent person eager to know and have a relationship with her dad. Roy's earnest but stumbling attempts to act like a good father provide the picture its greatest interest, its sweetest humor and its emotional core.
Roy falls for Angela (as do we) and falls hard. He's got a wad of cash in a safe deposit box that might exceed a million bucks, but he wants more for his daughter, and so he agrees to Frank's pestering proposal that they work a long con for a big score. Their mark is an obnoxious and greedy businessman named Chuck Frechette (Bruce McGill), and they set out to take him for $80,000 in one rigged cash swap. But when the timing gets screwed up, Roy believes he has no choice but to draft Angela as a player in the con, a hasty decision that casts his beloved child into a criminal role. When complications ensue, Roy has a lot to regret.
By no means all of this holds up. Like a lot of movies about scams, the plot works a lot better going forward than it does reflected on from the resolution back toward the beginning. A lot that does happen must happen but, in fact, very easily might not have happened. That may be almost inevitable in this kind of movie, but it's always disappointing. Moreover, just as in The Sting, there's a con within the con. I didn't see it coming then, and that's why it remains my favorite movie of this type. Unfortunately, I did see the con within the con unfolding in Matchstick Men, and though that fact did not destroy my liking for this movie, it did diminish my admiration a smidgen.
Among the elements that work are the wonderful lead performances. Always edgy and in danger of going over the top, Nicolas Cage has found the perfect character for his full-throttle energy. I predict he'll be a strong contender for an Oscar nomination. Meanwhile, I'd be shocked if Lohman doesn't land at least a nomination. She was so absolutely convincing as an eighth grader, I was astonished to learn that she was 23 when she played this part.
What always lasts longest in my affection for a movie, however, is character development that takes me somewhere I don't expect. Careful plotting can surprise and please, but well-drawn characters who change and grow can touch and teach. This is the area in which Matchstick Men excels. The picture manipulates our discomfort about Roy's profession with canny skill. The filmmakers know exactly the effect of their details and the way we will react. So ultimately there's a con within the con within the con. But the con within the con within the con is that this movie isn't about the con. It's about the man. I might wish I hadn't unknotted the first narrative surprise so easily. But in blocking the film's climactic left hook, I left myself open for the crunching right cross of its heartfelt denouement, and it knocked me right out.