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Making stew with the neurotic confidence man


The appearance of the new movie Matchstick Men underlines the surprising versatility of its director, Ridley Scott. He at times seems something of a throwback to the old studio system, when a great many talented, dedicated, hard-working people turned out all sorts of motion pictures without a great deal of thought about how they would be discussed by learned theoreticians in the French film journals.

            Under contract to some powerful and imperious studio bosses, writers, directors, producers, composers, designers, and whole troupes of actors generally worked at an assigned task, perhaps moving from a Western to a costume drama to a swashbuckler to a gangster flick, and so on. They were professionals and they did their job, usually with a minimum of pretension and often with remarkable success. In fact, they created American cinema as we know it, and influenced all other filmmakers everywhere.

            Scott's career includes a wide variety of genres, among them those important science fiction flicks, Alien and Blade Runner, the popular female buddy movie, Thelma and Louise, and thrillers as different as Someone to Watch Over Me and Hannibal. While committing his share of stinkers, like Legend, White Squall, and G. I. Jane, his most famous recent work, Gladiator, achieved a spectacular success, earning numerous awards, sizable profits, and critical praise. Although he may not exactly place an indelible mark on every film, making his work immediately recognizable, a Ridley Scott movie nevertheless usually displays a high level of technical competence, a glossy surface, and an utterly authentic atmosphere.

            His new picture, however, may seem less like a Ridley Scott movie than most of his previous work. The film employs a limited cast of actors, generally constricted sets, and a rather more interior subject and focus than most of his other titles, which tend to show considerable physical action in visually exciting settings. The movie also reminds us once again how thoroughly American in style and subject this British director has become.

            The title supposedly refers to a term, new to me, for that ambiguous but popular character, the confidence man, who appears in American fiction, drama, and film --- in the works of authors like Herman Melville and Mark Twain, and in such popular films (originally novels or plays) as Elmer Gantry, The Rainmaker, and The Music Man. Nicolas Cage plays a con man (he prefers to be called a con artist) who confronts a series of crises in his life and work. Those confrontations force the picture to move in several different directions at once, an odd disunity in the generally tight structures Scott favors, so that at times it looks rather atypically like a movie stew.

            Cage's primary problem consists of a whole anthology of phobias. He fears the outdoors, crowds, heights, and enclosed spaces, suffers from a variety of tics and twitches, and structures his life around his obsessive compulsive disorder. He cleans and polishes incessantly and keeps an armory of weapons to fight dirt and mess.

            He ultimately visits a psychiatrist for his problems, and the medication his doctor prescribes settles him down enough to plan a con with his partner (Sam Rockwell) that will earn them several hundred thousand dollars. When a 14-year-old girl (Alison Lohman) shows up on his doorstep claiming to be his long lost daughter, he initially rejects her but, at her insistence, enlists her in his scheme.

            Although the plot runs in a narrow path, the movie itself suggests problems of conception and direction. Oddly for a director whose stories generally maintain a high level of interest and a sure sense of pacing, Matchstick Men somehow keeps turning into other movies. Despite its basis in a confidence scheme, other matters keep intruding, so that the conversations between shrinker and patient tend to carry the narrative further than the actual conduct of the game, which never does become quite clear. The essentially comic business between father and daughter, his reluctant acquiescence in her demand to work with him, and their eventual collaboration in the scheme suggests some of the action and characters of Peter Bogdanovich's classic Paper Moon. Further, in keeping with the conventions of movie cons, the whole business concludes in a switch that should surprise the audience as much as it shocks the protagonist.

            Despite his generally dull and monotonous work in the past, in Matchstick Men, Nicolas Cage performs quite competently and entertainingly. He really carries the film for the director, in fact, using his long, lugubrious countenance and weak voice to express his character's extreme neurosis and sad desperation. He somehow conveys and comprehends in his own person the complicated (and often simply uncontrolled) emotional mixtures of a story that, whatever its messiness, follows some unusual and engaging paths to its resolution. The movie probably represents his best work, maybe even his only really good work, since another odd comedy, Raising Arizona, which suggests that he may wish to concentrate on that form instead of those failed dramas and thrillers of his recent past.

Matchstick Men, starring Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell, Alison Lohman, Bruce McGill, Bruce Altman, Tim Maculan, Melora Walters; screenplay by Ted Griffin and Nick Griffin; directed by Ridley Scott.

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