A recent survey declared 1939 the greatest year for movies. That year W.C. Fields starred in "You Can't Cheat an Honest Man," one in a long line of con movies with flim-flam men, grifters and con men as protagonists.
Nicholas Cage in "Matchstick Men," which opened Friday. (Warner Bros.)
The title says it all: You can't cheat a person who is honest. Unfortunately, most of us have a little larceny in our soul. Get-rich schemes are nothing new, and people will often follow the path of least resistance in order to get to "Easy Street."
"Matchstick Men" is the newest entry in this genre, which also includes "The Sting," "The Grifters" and "The Flim-Flam Man." All deal with people who prey on those willing to put aside their ethics for a momentary windfall.
Nicholas Cage as Roy leads this version. Suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, Roy has more ticks than an old dog. And he is a con artist, not a con man; he does not like the latter term.
Roy's partner is Frank (Sam Rockwell), the kind of guy who blows money as quickly as he gets it and is always in need. Frank is the antithesis of Roy. Whereas Roy is more fastidious than Felix Unger, Frank is as sloppy as Oscar Madison. Roy's problems hinder Frank's chances to make some real money.
The movie opens with the duo running a short con to swindle suckers willing to purchase a $50 water purifier for hundreds of dollars in hopes of winning a fabulous prize.
Roy is self-medicating with drugs gotten from a fly-by-night physician. When Roy accidentally pours his medicine down the drain, he winds up so out of sorts he obsessively cleans his home, over and over again, for days on end. Frank refers Roy to his aunt's former psychiatrist.
The doctor helps Roy with medication and, through therapy, uncovers the fact that Roy may have a child from his last relationship. Roy asks the doctor to call his ex-wife and find out the state of the child.
In a couple of days, Roy's daughter, Angela, shows up. This new presence begins to bring Roy out of his shell. She asks Roy about his life and winds up getting involved in the con that Roy and Frank are working on.
The movie delivers solid performances. Cage is becoming known for his tragic characters, and Roy is no exception. Cage is able to create pathos for a man who is stuck in life's rut, which is fast becoming a grave.
Rockwell, who played Chuck Barris in last year's "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," is getting typecast in some ways, as he generally plays nutty and crazy. Here, his Frank is a man that cannot be trusted. He is the type of guy most of us would run from, but he has this roguish charm that easily ropes people in.
The director is veteran Ridley Scott, whose "Gladiator" and "Blackhawk Down" were larger-than-life films with big stories and large casts. This is a smaller film, with four central characters driving the narrative. What we witness is a man's transformation at an intersection with three other people. Scott has here fashioned a film that moves through the life of a man at odds with himself.
All in all, "Matchstick Men" takes its place as a morality play within the membership of the con artist—not con men—genre. It tells a story of redemption that has at its heart a truth from Jesus: "What does it profit a man to gain the world but lose his soul?"
"Matchstick Men" reiterates the principle that through loss, we gain.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, violence, some sexual content and language
Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: Nicholas Griffin and Ted Griffin
Cast: Roy: Nicolas Cage; Frank Mercer: Sam Rockwell; Angela: Alison Lohman; Frechette: Bruce McGill; Dr. Klein: Bruce Altman.