RIORI Vol 3, Installment 80: Ridley Scott’s “Matchstick Men” (2003)



The Players…

Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell, Alison Lohman, Bruce Altman and Bruce McGill, with Sheila Kelley and Beth Grant.


The Story…

Roy’s a professional con man struggling with three distinct issues. One, well being a con man. Two, rampant OCD. And three, meeting the daughter he never knew he had.

Poor Roy inadvertently jeopardizes his tightly organized and artificially controlled life when the very not artificial concept of fatherhood chafes his orderly scamming lifestyle. Beyond it all, man’s got a right to earn a living, whatever that is, be it against a Nabokov book waiting to happen or not.

Wait! What? Huh?

*washes hands with vigor*


The Rant…

My first intro to Ridley Scott was at a precocious and waaaaay too f*cking young age.

It was the early-80s. VCRs were finally affordable to middle class schlubs like my Dad. We got a quality Maganox VHS unit at an 80s steal around $700. Thing was worth more, reliable, durable and even survived well into the DVD age. Sure, we had to clean the soot out of its chimney once every month to maintain picture clarity, but this slab could stop an assassin’s bullet and still be able to set the timer for that week’s SNL installment. We didn’t need an app for that.

Video rentals were like mushrooms back then: sprouting up everywhere in places you were surprised to find them. Sure, there were a few chains like Blockbuster, Hollywood. But also local mom-and-pop movie dealers, the local libraries, even supermarkets before God. My father got a membership with local mom and pop (who also sold bagels if my memory serves, which it doesn’t). Friday evening came and he, me and sometimes my screechy sisters would wander in and scope out a few tapes for the weekend. My father being a shrewd customer—one who had access to a phone—would be one to literally call it in. Do you have this movie? You do? Could you please hold it for me? Be your best friend. Thanks. See you later. Hey, do you have any cinnamon raisins left?

Back to Scott. And the worst night of my pre-pubescent life.

It was of course a Friday night. Late night. Mom and the screechies cacked out hours ago. Even at age 10 I had the nite owl blood in me. Insomniac. Still am; started writing this week’s screed at 12.30 AM. But it’s Friday and I’m off work tomorrow, so yay me.

Didn’t have a store to mind when I was 10, and on those Fridays back in the day my Dad made his prerequisite calls to the Bagelsmith to see what was fresh and ready for pick-up. He would roll out around 6-ish and come back a half-hour later with a pair of tapes. If the kids didn’t come along for the ride-and-pick we were not supposed to. My father’s selections were his and his alone. Wonder where I learned about insomnia and the power of holding the remote.

I got curious, of course.

A few times Dad let me squat down in the wee hours to watch what he was watching. At 10 I was into The Karate Kid, Star Blazers and Chilean snuff films (kidding. Discovered Star Blazers when I was 8). It was mostly aboveboard stuff. Dad was Dad. He was older. He could rent PG-13 movies with impunity. The R-rated stuff was trace element. My father was a pretty liberal guy when it came to me joining him for his late night viewing frenzy. If a movie was rated R he followed the rule to the rote: Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. Namely, he was over 17, I wasn’t. He was there as the guardian with the membership card and I found my snot-nosed self being “accompanied” by him into the Friday night cinematic chop shop. To his credit he always assured me that if what were watching turned out to be too scary/violent/sexy/redolent of poppy seeds we could turn it off. Sounded like a challenge. My father challenged me to Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, The Graduate and Gene Hackman in general. Sweep the leg, Johnny.

This was I how I was unravelled by Ridley Scott. When I was 10 I could give the barest rodent scintilla about who directed a movie so long as that movie was cool. The names Scorsese, Kurosawa, Spielberg and Scott were all but pidgin to me. I liked sci-fi, comedies and sci-fi comedies (bless you, Spaceballs). What Dad had cued up on the capstans made me stand at attention that there was an almost monolithic man/woman behind the cameras demanding where the story would go. The director. And the first director’s name I ever learned was Ridley Scott. By now you’re prob’ scratching yer scalp wondering, “Whatever Ridley Scott movie could lobotomize a 10 year old so?” If Dad were present and it was late, then it must have been rated R. And since you were under 17 and required an accompanying parent or adult guardian, Dad understood his responsibility and assessed that I may have been hip to this proviso, his late night rental. You lucky, insomniac scamp, you.

So if this gets too scary, here’s my arm. Squeeze if you have to.

Alien.

It was Alien. I was 10. He let me watch Alien. Did I mention I was 10? I “slept” post-viewing with my bedroom light burning until morning. My Mom poked her head in the door early the following Saturday morning and asked a “sleeping” me why the light was on all night. Then:

“Have you been up all night?”

“…Uh-huh.”

“Why?”

“…Dad showed me a scary movie.”

She rolled her eyes. “Better go talk to him.”

“I liked it, but…”

It must’ve been around 10 AM. “Go get some sleep.” And echoing down the hall came: “Oh, honey!”

The image of a freaked out Sigourney Weaver burned in my head. I could relate with that skittish, everything may fall apart at the last minute feeling. Remember the film’s final act? Uh, yeah. I wasn’t well until Sunday night when school was looming anew. Boy, did I have a movie to tell my friends about. And said nothing.

The movie stunned me so with both its claustrophobia as well as grotesquerie—and with me being “man enough” to watch it—I kept Alien to myself. It scared me sh*tless, and I survived it, well below the 17-year old water line. Felt like a right of passage, watching a serious R-rated movie intact. And beyond enduring the visceral viewing, I enjoyed it. To this day Alien is my favorite scary movie (and I don’t even like scary movies, at least not the exhibitionist kind. I demand good acting, decent pacing and an acceptable plot, like the original cuts of The Haunting or Halloween), and I relish any opportunity to punish the Alien-uninitiated for a virgin viewing. My stepkid found it “okay.” She liked Aliens better, and voiced so. Philistine. She was thirteen at the time. I earned my stripes at 10, so there.

Besides Alien scaring the sleep out of me, it injected a need to figure out what the hell did a movie do to make me take notice. Sure, I always got some entertainment from watching movies, mostly the age appropriate, non-arm clinging kind. At the then time I think my fave film was the original Ghostbusters (a sucker for Bill Murray ever since I saw Meatballs. Saw it at summer camp. Where else?). Paranormal comedy grabbed me as a kid, and taught me to not cross the streams. Heard it was bad. I guess that fave flick planted an embryo as to how did this awesome movie happen?

But Ghostbusters didn’t entrance me, not like Scott’s sophomore effort did. I was still 10, remember? A fresh Lego kit held my attention more. I knew how to put those little, plastic bricks together to create a satisfying whole. The instruction manuals helped. Was there an instruction manual out there to instruct how a cool movie tickled my fancies?

Fast forward…

I don’t believe in “auteur theory,” where the director of a movie is claimed to be the “author” of the film. If that were the case there’d be no closing credits. Even the average movie-goer is sharp enough to know the director may get the biggest slice, but there are also other folks billed as actors, writers, producers, caterers, etc that made a major contribution to the final product that you eventually get to hem and haw and keep the light on all night for. In a fair and just cinematic world (with an often exception to Tarantino, Kubrick and Hitchcock), a film’s opening credits would read directed by/written by/produced by in the same frame.

*burp*

Whoever, right? Didn’t know the why before Alien. After watching it was like tossing those old ELO albums out the window after hearing the first Ramones album. A punch to the gut. Who was behind this awesome/scary/dad arm-clinging movie?

Ridley Scott. The first director after Spielberg that demanded of a young me what a director/”auteur” did to place an indelible stamp on my freaked out, insomniac forehead, watching the lazy ceiling fan slowly swirling above a bare light bulb hoping beyond hope that its glare would keep any slobbering xenomorph from creeping out of the closet and ripping my ribs into jello. Hearing my mother’s scolding meant it worked.

Fast forward a year, maybe two. A buddy of mine who was keen to sci-fi as I was got hip to some cultish movie. Caught a snippet of it on HBO, a free weekend. Remember those? The snippet proper was a caution about the film containing graphic violence. I wasn’t hip to the phrase “graphic violence,” but it sounds devilishly good to me. My friend told me it was on heavy rotation on HBO then. I didn’t have premium cable at my house; his den was the golden gate, decades before parental controls.

At the right time, we nipped the scene where Priss—

“What are you two watching?!?”

We switched the proper Atari toggle.

In harmony, a la Bosom Buddies: “Nothing.”

Blade Runner. Also not healthy for 10-year old boys. Dangerous fun. A mind warp of a movie. Starred Han Solo, so there.

So that’s what it’s all about. A signature, a statement, a reason to deny sleep. Took me decades to decode that whole wad. I wasn’t some amateur film critic at 10; barely one at 40. But across the decades being drawn to certain movies, defying the Kobra Kai, I think I got it: there are no auteurs, just directors with a grip. Like on my dad’s arm.

Ridley Scott taught me about signature, an aesthetic. Us movie watchers are well aware if not forewarned by a certain director’s style, muse, statement, motive. Spielberg has his. So does Scorsese. As do Carpenter. So did Kurosawa, Ford, Hill, Ashby, Hitch, Kubrick. Including the guys on this plane: Weir, Lynch, Nolan, Argento, (sigh) and Bay. Style. Eventually you wait on baited breath for any of the above icons to unbridle their freshest horse. You know what arm to cling on.

But like with The Color Purple, The Last Temptation Of Christ, Dr Strangelove, The Quiet Man, Big Trouble In Little China, Rear Window, High And Low, The Last Detail….and Matchstick Men, a signature director sometimes needs a left turn to remind us that they are human. Directors are not infallible. Sometimes they take on projects that might be left of center, against their grain. Spielberg had his 1941. Carpenter has his Prince Of Darkness. Kurosawa had his Ikiru. And Scott had his Matchstick Men.

All passable movie entertainment, but also strain against the directors’ trademark style. It’s good to challenge yourself as a director, tackling a project that may or may not be their usual flavor. Often it’s a good thing. Spielberg directing The Color Purple, a Jewish director exploring racism and same sex romance. Nolan tackling a comic book icon like Batman and making a psycho-thriller rather than Donner’s Superman sparkle. And Scott helming a goofy crime caper, rather than his usual epic-style Blade Runner. Or even Gladiator.

After viewing Matchstick Men something told me that Scott got to grabbing at our arm. So come, take my hand. Just take off your shoes before you lay foot on the carpet…


Roy Waller (Cage) is a criminal. A con artist, scamming innocents out of their hard earned cash so to better his business acumen. He’s also a neurotic mess. OCD. Anxiety ridden. Maybe a guilty conscious at work? Whatever. There’s always a job to get done. And therein lies a new problem. Good Lord.

Roy’s partner in crime Frank (Rockwell) is tired of the small scams. Cheating old ladies out of their insurance money? Small potatoes. Frank wants a big mark, namely in the form of a high roller (McGill), a treacherous duck to be sure. But Roy is not so sure, especially since that letter dropped out of the mail slot onto his beloved carpet.

The anonymous letter claims that Roy has a child. A teenaged daughter named Angela (Lohman) who wishes to know him. Gulp. A spanner in his nefarious works.

Roy’s therapist (Altman) encourages him to reach out. He suggests it might be a healthy change, engaging with someone who won’t outright contribute to his anxious life of crime.

Roy reluctantly concedes. He meets Angela after school one day and puts on his best new dad face, tics and twitches in full force. He discovers she’s a pleasant, well-adjusted teenaged girl who always wanted to meet her estranged dad. Angela is disarming, and her connecting to Roy’s life of angst mellows him somewhat. Whew.

As way leads on to fatherly way, Roy ‘fesses up and informs Angela of his chosen profession. She’s intrigued. To his surprise, Angela wants in on the action. Roy’s unsure. Frank’s really unsure; Angela’s sticky fingers might muddy the waters, distracting Roy further from his big scam, as well as some forward motion.

No matter. The dice are cast. Roy opts for some responsibility. Angela takes to the con like a duck to water. Frank flails his hands in frustration.

Again, no matter. Roy’s carpet needed a shampoo anyway…


Like I mentioned, Ridley Scott’s style operates on an epic level. Even the simplest of his films (like this one) approach a grand scope. Unlike Alien (still epic, yet deceptively simple), Matchstick Men is a diversion. Here his big idea concept is intact, but married to an overtly simple story. And he keeps it that way, to his delight.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Not necessarily.

Recall the “left turn” notion about how some directors with their signature often attempt to shed their audience? Men is one of those kind of films. Outright, what business does the director of AlienGladiator and Kingdom Of Heaven have fiddling around with some crime caper? Guess he felt like he needed a cinematic colonic. A directorial equivalent of Dylan’s Self Portrait album. Maybe he just liked the script. Or maybe wry comedy was something he felt like dabbling in. Or maybe for him just cut loose and have some fun.

And Men is fun. Funny, rather. Offbeat. Not the flavor in Columbus. Definite lo-fi aesthetic as far as Scott’s work goes. It’s a nice change, albeit incongruent with the guy’s signature oeuvre. It kinda shows. Again, not really a bad thing. But it sure plays out as odd.

Men is pretty light-hearted for Scott, relatively speaking. One, it’s a comedy. Don’t recall anytime him attempting this. Granted, it’s kind of a black comedy, and Scott is no stranger to being dark. But there’s an uncharacteristic sunny side to this offbeat caper (and “offbeat” is nearly verboten in Scott’s catalogue). And I’m gonna use the term “offbeat” a lot here. Fair warning.

That being said, Men is shot with the exactitude Scott always employs, like the cheap scalpel to the high school fetal pig autopsy. His high concept vision of cinema verité is intact. His characters are mismatched chess pieces. The story is straightforward enough—

*tires screeching to a halt*

Therein lies the trouble. It’s been relayed that Scott is a director of big concepts. Men is anything but. It’s straightforward, almost formulaic. Doesn’t really marry well with the director’s accepted raison d’etre. Simply put, Scott directing a flick like Men don’t make much sense. Still, he did a good job being in the shallow end of the pool.

I think most of the heavy lifting in this featherweight caper rests on the cast. They’re more of a distraction than an asset to moving the story along. And the story—as I noted—is quite simple and straightforward. We’ve seen crime capers like this before. Men swings evenly between Paper Moon and unevenly towards The Professional. But like with those movies, it’s the cast that somewhat strains in rising above The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, the ur-crime caper. So then, let’s dismantle Men‘s rogues gallery, shall we?

First and foremost Cage’s bread and butter is weird roles. We ain’t talkin’ Raising Arizona or Wild At Heart weird here. His Roy however seems custom made to tickle his muse. Cage is also well-known for his deft physical comedy chops. How’s it look here painted with OCD? Right. Ugly funny. The hook here is Roy’s mania, not the con game that soaks the plot. Roy’s OCD is played as comic, but ultimately is sad and scary. He’s supposed to be the guy we get behind? It’s a key plot device overall, but beneath Scott and no less tragic. We ain’t talking Maximus tragic, but it’s enough to allow us sympathy for our twitchy protag. Roy’s OCD may be played as comic, but ultimately it’s sad and scary. Recall the hook. He’s supposed to be the guy we get behind? Good plot device done well, but beneath Scott’s skills. No less tragic, though.

Now being a sudden dad is a responsibility you can’t con. Trust me, I know. The con makes Roy approach stable, making up sh*t. It’s reality that’s his downfall. That being said, Lohman has an honest taste for her role as Angela (and for the life of me I can’t shake the hand of the casting director enough. How did they make a twentysomething successfully come off as a 16-year old high school skater chick? I credit strategic bandages and hair flairs). Funny without being cute or openly naive. If you pay close attention through Angela Roy isn’t really the “hero.” Lohman carries the second and third acts. Roy’s just eyewash. Very funny eyewash, but the con nonetheless. Makes for a jovial, R-rated Brady Bunch feel. That being said, neurotic Cage and loose cannon Lohman paired against each other have a genuine chemistry. Yep. Thank or blame Scott going out on his demented, xenomorph-less shingle.

Men is Elmore Leonard on Xanax. It’s kinda madcap. Another divergence for Scott, and he’s faring well here. The plot is bone simple. You might’ve seen this movie before. I know I have. Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. The Fisher King. The original Rush Hour. Mutant buddy movies. Barring Rockwell as Cage’s confidant, Men is a warped buddy movie all the way. But that’s a conceit. Despite the odd mixture of character play, this was relatively straightforward. You can see where this is going a light-year away, with a few twists to keep your attention. I figure this movie floundered because it was too “not Scott” to attract the usual fans. That and the poor press. So much for Ridley stretching himself short.

A coda: it’s in the final act where Scott’s edge finally surfaces. It’s all the better for it, annulling the first two derivative acts of cat, mouse and vacuum. It’s also a shame that Men is merely a curiosity for both Scott and his audience. Again, unsure if Scott needed some diversion from his stock-in-trade epic style. Although uncomfortable, Men has its merits. It’s akin to Bob Dylan’s Street Legal album. Most musicians would kill for this best stuff. But it’s Scott here. Playing it safe? Not really. Entertaining some trifle? Sure, but such a thing is not where Scott should tread. Oh well.

Needless to say, Men didn’t keep me up all night, fan swirling in agony. Scratching my head? Somewhat. It was okay, but for lacking.

What I’m driving at is I opined for tasteful violence paired with chuckles. But this wasn’t a Tarantino flick. It was a Ridley Scott flick with a diluted epic feel.

Screw it. This was hardly epic. Or clever. Or beyond rote.

“Sometimes the cold makes the blade stick.”


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it, if only for another side of Scott you’ve never seen. I hope I never see it again. Twitch.


Stray Observations…

  • “One, two, three.”
  • Ever wonder how crazy people conduct their outwardly “normal” lives? You found this blog, didn’t you?
  • Rockwell is not an actor. He is a voice.
  • “That was a good day!”
  • I feel for poor Roy. I really do. I just didn’t want to be felt. Or burlap either.
  • Cage has been balding for, like, 20 years now.
  • “I’m in antiques.”
  • She turned the key three times.
  • The art of the dry swallow personified.
  • Altman is a passive deus ex machina. That’ll be $125 please.
  • “Your turn.”
  • Like the soundtrack. Very Rat Pack-esque.
  • It’s odd. Cage’s twitchiness never really becomes distracting. It’s like a character unto itself. Think Mr Hyde.
  • For all of his roles has Rockwell ever combed his hair?
  • “Pygmies.”
  • “You’re not a bad guy. You’re just not a very good one.” Ouch.
  • Lohman fake cries really well.
  • “You didn’t take yer pills, didja?”

Next Installment…

Giving sanction to an alien en route to a sci-fi convention? That’s like an ironic spin on robbing Peter to pay Paul.


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