Nicolas Cage’s Twitchy Con Man Takes the Dad Rap

Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men , from a screenplay by Nicholas and Tod Griffin, based on the book by Eric Garcia, was a thoroughly absorbing hour and 56 minutes of entertainment. This was due largely to my not knowing a thing about these “matchstick men” before the screening, other than that they were a group of con artists headed by a twitchy Nicolas Cage. These days, it’s not often that I can see a movie and actually be surprised by the way it turns out-unlike the films of my childhood that I’d catch at the Glenwood, Farragut and Rialto theaters on Flatbush Avenue. Back then no one read reviews, and certainly no one called up to get show times. We just … went to the movies, and if we came in during the middle of one feature, no big deal. We sat through till the end, saw the whole second feature and then nudged one another to leave when the first feature reached the part at which we had entered. From the earliest days of my cinema-going adventures, movies were a magical excursion to an alternative universe; that feeling of being “lost” in the movies is still with me, even though I’ve gotten old writing about them to earn my keep.

Still, it’s become increasingly difficult for most people to avoid all the information gushing out of media outlets that give away the who, why and what of upcoming films. It’s pretty rare, therefore, for a trick plot to creep up on a viewer without any prior warning. But that’s what happened to me with Matchstick Men (and I’m loath to cheat my readers of this uncommon pleasure). But in order to explain why this film works as well as it does, I have to give away some of the twists in the narrative. Consequently, dear reader, I ask you to skip not only the rest of this review if you intend to see this film, but also to avoid any advance buzz related to Matchstick Men .

So what happens when a con artist is himself conned in a seemingly cruel and heartless manner? Even I was shocked, at first, at the lightning-fast shifts of perspective by the twist-within-a-twist plotline. Certainly, Matchstick Men soared in my estimation not only for these surprise turns, but for the accomplished ingenuity and incisiveness of the acting, writing, direction and cinematography throughout. Nicolas Cage especially gives the performance of his career as Roy Waller, a convoluted con man who uses bureaucratic impersonations to hoodwink his victims. He himself is afflicted with an obsessive-compulsive disorder similar to the Tourette’s syndrome convincingly illustrated by Rob Morrow in Maze (2000), combined with Tony Shaloub’s cleanliness mania in the television crime series Monk . What is even more oppressive about Roy’s disorder is that it has left him completely isolated emotionally from other human beings, including a wife he abandoned years before. Roy does manage to function on “jobs” with his junior partner, Frank (Sam Rockwell), who presents a jaunty contrast to the solemnly preoccupied Roy.

Roy and Frank seem to be marking time in the early stages of their operation; their exploits are not nearly as engrossing as those in Stephen Frears’ The Grifters (1990). But sure enough, the plot thickens when Roy begins to go to pieces after his doctor, who supplies him with illegal drugs to combat his malady, suddenly disappears. Frank puts Roy in touch with Dr. Klein (Bruce Altman), a psychiatrist who supplies drugs with the necessary prescriptions, but insists on treating Roy’s emotional problems as well. Roy is sure he has a 14-year-old child, because his wife was pregnant when he left her. Roy, however, cannot handle the trauma of calling her himself. He gives her number to Frank, who subsequently informs Roy that he has a daughter named Angela (Alison Lohman) who is dying to see him, and who soon comes over, riding a skateboard, from her mother’s home.

At this point, we are led to believe that the movie is moving into overfamiliar territory. How will father and daughter get along after all these years? Will Roy accept his responsibility to keep his daughter on the straight and narrow, especially after she expresses an unsettling eagerness to participate with him and Frank in all their illegal activities? Frank seems skeptical about allowing Angela into a world requiring split-second timing and intuitive awareness of the perils of exposure. At least that’s what we’re led to believe. Yet Roy and Angela are so affecting and sympathetic together that we hope against hope that they will find a way to stay together.

Then, suddenly, the rug is swept out from under us when a greedy “mark” named Chuck Frechette (Bruce McGill) bites back from a scam. He confronts Roy, Angela and Frank in Roy’s home with a gun and threatens to get young Angela sent to prison.

Somehow, Angela finds a gun in Roy’s house and apparently shoots Chuck to death. Roy manfully agrees to take the rap for Angela, and asks Frank to return her to her mother. He walks them out to the car and sees them off. But when he returns to the house, he finds Chuck gone, and everything suddenly goes black. He regains consciousness in a hospital being interrogated by two plainclothes detectives. He asks for his psychiatrist, Dr. Klein, and is granted his wish. Still thinking of Angela above all else, he whispers his safety-box number to Dr. Klein so that Angela can have his money. The next morning, he wakes up to discover that everyone is gone, and that he is not in a hospital at all, but in an empty loft apartment.

Roy gradually discovers that he’s been duped, as Frank reveals in a taunting letter. Angela was not his daughter. Dr. Klein was not a real psychiatrist. Chuck Frechette was never killed. There were no police in the case. And there is no way for Roy to get even. After all the vicarious emotion we have invested in Roy’s relationship with Angela, we can be forgiven for feeling cheated. How cynical can you be? A year later, as the film tells us, Roy is working legit in a secondhand-carpet store. A slacker type walks in looking for a bargain, and he is followed by Angela, this time with different hair and looking much, much older than 14. Roy looks at her very intently but does not expose or upbraid her. But we notice that all his tics are gone. Angela cheerfully confesses her part in the scam, adding that Frank eventually cheated her as well. Roy is not surprised by this bit of news, but he doesn’t seem bitter. We next see him going home to his wife for his nightly dinner. He sits next to her to lean down with his head to her swollen stomach, denoting a new life that soon will enter his. He has rejoined the human race.

Somehow, I bought it, though this film runs counter to every feel-good fantasy in the movies, even those designed for the vestigially larcenous impulses of the most law-abiding moviegoers. In this context, there is something heroic in Roy’s embrace of an honest life. Even if you disagree with my rationalization, you should find Matchstick Men worthy of your time.

Who’s My Baby?

John Sayles’ Casa de los Babys is the 14th film in his nearly quarter-century career of ultra-independent and socially conscious filmmaking, which was launched in 1980 with provocative bravado in Return of the Secaucus 7 . Casa was shot entirely in Mexico, where Mr. Sayles previously filmed Men with Guns (1998), but the action takes place in an undisclosed South American country where Americans have been adopting infant orphans, a trend that has pricked national sensitivities recently. Casa revolves around six American women brought together in a local motel near the orphanage. There they wait for all the red tape to unravel so that each can go back with a foreign-born baby. They wait, they wait and they wait, and that’s about all the action there is. The camera moves but little else changes, even as the characters contemplate the intercultural friction between the American adopting mothers and their Latin-American hosts.

Why did Mr. Sayles undertake this difficult challenge? As he explains in the program notes: “The debate over nature vs. nurture is central to many of our most vital scientific, social and literary movements. Nowhere does it get to a more personal airing than in the phenomenon of adoption and nowhere within that phenomenon than in adoption between cultures. Though the statistical genetic possibilities inherent in ‘normal childbirth’ and child rearing are staggering, our belief systems still repeat to the ‘otherness’ of children adopted into non-birth families and cultures. The mix I tried for in Casa de los Babys was to have a range of personal histories and attitudes among the adoptive mothers, a range of reactions to the fact of ‘foreign’ adoption among the people we meet in the local host culture, and some of the hard practical tragedy of what kids who remain unclaimed and uncared for face.”

I must confess at this point that I spent most of the 95-minute running time of Casa trying to distinguish between some of the actresses from my previous image of them. A major distraction was that all the players were made up (or not made up) to look like “real people” instead of glamorous movie stars. Another problem was the tendency of Mr. Sayles to photograph the various child-seekers in middle or long shot, generally as part of a group. The sheer number of photogenic faces was still another distraction-the usual practice in moviegoing is to focus on one or two beautiful faces, often in expressive close-ups. Even more perplexing, Mr. Sayles labors manfully to be fair to all his performers, and since there are no easy contrasts between good and bad characters, the viewers’ eyes are continually confounded by visual conflicts of interest.

For the record, the six characters in search of el bebé are Jennifer (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Nan (Marcia Gay Harden), Skipper (Daryl Hannah), Leslie (Lili Taylor), Eileen (Susan Lynch) and Gayle (Mary Steenburgen). Jennifer stands out somewhat as the youngest of the six. The other five seem to illustrate the post-feminist backlash-that women in their 30’s and 40’s cannot so easily have it all (i.e., a consuming career and a child from their own womb).

Rita Moreno as the easily enraged motel owner heads a Spanish-speaking cast of variously aggrieved local inhabitants who attack America for being richer than even we over here know it to be. But Mr. Sayles’ refined sensibility and first-rate polemical intellect keeps him from descending into caricatures and stereotypes on either side of the political divide. It also inhibits him from plunging into the rapids of melodrama, which spell entertainment for most people.