Sunday, June 20, 2004

AnimeJune's First Film Review: "Matchstick Men"

AnimeJune's rating: ***1/2 (three and a half stars, out of five)
Obsessive-compulsive disorder has become quite popular in the media, especially when used to comedic effect. In "As Good As It Gets", Jack Nicholson grumbles and slouches around his disorder in order to win the heart of Helen Hunt. In the television series "Monk", Tony Shaloub plays a widowed detective whose OCD actually lends him better insight into his cases. So, when I sat down to watch "Matchstick Men", which stars Nicholas Cage as a con man with OCD, I was expecting a comedy, something in the vein of "Ocean's 11", only more funny. Or less, if they botched it up. Using a mental disorder to spark laughter can be a touchy game.
Ah, but don't be so quick to judge a film by its trailers. "Matchstick Men" is not a comedy, at least in the broad, slapstick and witty banter sense of the word. Roy Waller, the main Matchstick Man of this film, is in the middle of executing a water-purifier sweepstake scam with his partner, Frank Mercer (played smugly by Sam Rockwell), when he accidently loses his entire prescription of pills when they fall down the garbage disposal. Roy blinks randomly and twitches when doors are left open even when he's on his medication, so this sudden loss of his precious pink tablets sends him off the deep end. For him, things speed up crazily, or slow down, and he becomes obsessed with scrubbing every inch of his house, so much that he neglects his partner for a full week. Not eager to lose their lucrative con, Frank refers him to a therapist, Dr. Klein (Bruce Altman). His sessions with Dr. Klein stir up memories of his pregnant ex-wife, and after some searching, the resourceful Dr.Klein finds out that Roy has a 14-year-old daughter named Angela.
The knowledge that he is a father completely changes Roy's whole attitude, especially when he finally meets her in person (played by Alison Lohman). In most cliched movies, when the relunctant hero finds out about their long-lost child, they moan about it and try to work around the changes that are brought about by the presence of their offspring. Roy, however, goes out of his way to make his daughter happy, and that adds a refreshing taste of genuine warmth to an otherwise quirky film. Eventually, though, catering to his giggly daughter's whims leads Roy to introduce her to his world of conning idiots out of cash, a pasttime Angela takes to with a surprising vigor.
What makes this film sincerely heartfelt is the honesty with which tbey portray Roy's disorder. They don't use it for laughs. When his ticks drive him to distraction, when he sucks desperately on cigarettes while trying to banish invisible stains from his glass coffeetable, the director frames it in stark, searing sunlight, revealing the pathetic nature of Roy's obsessions. All the light in the film is bright and harsh, scouring away the pretenses of movie cliches.
However, once he meets his daughter, he leaves doors open. He orders pizza instead of prying cold tuna fish from a can. He introduces himself to the pretty cashier at the grocery store instead of avoiding her eyes as she rings up his predictable purchases. Of what happens in the first three-quarters of the movie, nothing is able to prepare the audience for the emotional roller-coaster occurs at the end that should have blasted everything Roy worked for into irrelevancy, but didn't. That's what prevented the film from getting a perfect score. I like plot twists, but usually only in a movie where giant plot twists are expected. Spy films, serious caper films. Ridley Scott's direction deviates so much from the normal tone of a thriller, that by the time the monumental story U-turn comes, we have been lulled into a complacency, fooled into believing that the film has settled into a feel-good movie rut. By that time, any real desire for a serious change has fled, and so the arrival of the twist kicked me where it hurt. Now, maybe that's the effect the director was going for, to lead us into a safe place in broad daylight before jabbing the knife and twisting hard.
That's was kicked the film for me. There have been misleading trailers, that is true, but never misleading movies. I wracked my brain thinking, "What was the director trying to do to the audience?" Could it have been to entertain? How could that have been entertaining? Now, dear readers, do not take this review the wrong way. I'm not saying this is a bad movie. By no means. It does not do things conventially. That's why I'm warning you. Plot twists ahead. Complete changes in narrative tones ahead. This way, when you have a purpose in mind when watching a film, you can have the right purpose when watching this film. Believe me, if you're looking for a gentle comedy with a little crime mixed in, watch this film for an hour and fifteen minutes, and then run the hell away. Expect twists. If you want twists, watch this film. You'll have to wait awhile, but at the end, it's worth it.


  1. For my review on Matchstick Men
    Go to

  2. I enjoyed most of the movie. Including all of the cheats, lies, and dirty tricks. I also enjoyed the second story line of a father getting to know his 14 year old daughter for the first time.