NOW PLAYING: Matchstick Men

Posted: Tuesday, September 30, 2003

There are scenes of pure joy in Nicholas Cage's film Matchstick Men, scenes that, by themselves, are not necessarily notable, but put together remind us that Cage is a wild kinetic force as an actor, not simply, and I use this term as derogatorily as I can, a "movie star."

Nicholas Cage started life as Nicholas Coppola but changed his name to avoid the appearance of riding the coattails of his famous uncle. His first few starring roles didn't create unequivocable success, but did introduce audiences to a wholly unique actor. He could be wacky, serious, even scary, without ever stumbling in to typicality. Films like Vampire's Kiss, Raising Arizona, and Wild at Heart showed that Cage not only had range, but had a style all his own. And success did come. Sure, it wasn't Tom Cruise-style success, but who cares? People loved Moonstruck, and even though he dabbled in films that were more mainstream, duds like Firebirds:, he always came back. I was proud to say he was one of my favorite actors. As the eighties rolled out and the nineties rolled in Cage produced fewer hits and a more duds, until 1995 when he was finally afforded his due. His heartbreaking roll as a suicidal alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas won him the Oscar he so deserved. And then the bottom fell out. I don't know if Cage felt like he'd finally succeeded artistically and it was time for a payday or what, but of his next eleven films, only one was at all unique, and most were simply bad. He was now a Hollywood leading man and taking just about every blockbuster that came his way. How could the guy who embodied H.I. McDunnough from Raising Arizona now star in Con Air? And Gone in Sixty Seconds? That was one of the worst films of that year, and his performance matched the film. Cage was gone, we'd lost him.

And then there was a bright spot - a beacon of hope. Charlie Kaufman's 2002 follow-up to his bizarre fairy tale Being John Malkovich was to star Nicholas Cage in a dual role, as Charlie Kaufman and his fictional twin brother, two men trying to write the very movie that they were in. Adaptation was high concept, audacious, and superb. Nicholas Cage was back. And now, finally, with Matchstick Men he has come full circle. He has proved that he can have leading man charisma, movie star clout, and still retain his characteristic style of acting. I'm so happy.

Obviously, you'd like to know what Matchstick Men is about and, Nicholas Cage's performance aside, if it's any good. I'm almost there, but I felt it was important to give a little background, considering that, for me at least, Matchstick was fraught with all kinds of peripheral baggage. That said, the movie is terrific. Cage's performance as a con artist grappling with obsessive-compulsive disorder is right on the money. Not too over the top, not a caricature, but not so sensitive as to become dull and tedious. Cage, along with his partner, the always excellent Sam Rockwell, have several nifty little scams going - they bait, switch, snag, wheedle, cajole, and just downright lie to get your money. But the classic con artist rationalization (they don't steal money, people give it to them. See the difference?) isn't really doing the trick anymore, at least for our hero. So, he goes to a shrink who convinces him, obliquely, to seek out a relationship with his estranged daughter, fourteen years of age. And then the fun begins. However, don't mistake this for a typical fish-out-of-water, "I don't know how to be a dad" sap-fest. Under Ridley Scott's able direction, Matchstick Men is anything but typical. It twists, turns, and delivers a dynamite ending that one would really have to be a spoilsport to reveal.

Matchstick Men is reminiscent of, though mostly superior to, recent films of the same genre. The con artist film has enjoyed mostly creative, if not always monetary, success through its long history. The reason for this is obvious; by their very nature these films have to be innovative, tricky, different. Sure, sometimes they get bogged down with excess violence or too much dialogue, but overall they have provided a haven for sharp writers like David Mamet. The only problem is, as we go on, the cons, by necessity are getting more and more complicated - see the overwrought Confidence as an example. As Matchstick is about more than just the con, it is free to wander a little and keeps clear of the pitfalls of its fellows.

Matchstick Men marks the joyful return of a true acting genius. If Nicholas Cage can keep up this level of performance, I'll buy whatever he's selling. Let's just hope we, the audience, aren't the ones being conned. Grade: A

Matchstick Men is rated PG-13 for language and brief violence.

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