October 2003

Liz Miller

hollywood madam

Matchstick Men: Burnt Out

There's something about a great little book. A short, sweet novel, a slick-covered trade paperback that fits perfectly into your bag and devours just the right number of minutes before a friend shows up or a movie starts. A wistful little fiction that you can curl up in bed with on a lazy Saturday morning. A complete little world that you can hold in your hand.

There's also something about a great little movie. Nothing too flashy, nothing too intense -- a strong story, interesting characters, funny jokes, and a happy ending that fits just right. Something you rent on a boring Friday night or catch on cable when down with the flu.

If you don't read the book beforehand, Matchstick Men can be the latter. But it works much better as the former.

Reading the book by Eric Garcia was a treat, a lovely diversion. The story of an obsessive-compulsive grifter living in the nebulous ether of middle America, discovering a long-lost daughter and a new capacity for being human. The prose was elegant and sparse, leaving readers to infer all the good stuff on their own. The characters spoke with their own voices. I looked forward to what they were going to say next.

And I knew that the movie was coming out, so I was looking for the structure in the story, trying to figure out how the movie would work. But t didn't seem like the adapters would have to do a lot of work, at my first perusal. The structure felt complete, the story coming full circle in the end. It just needed a little bit of tweaking, to make it less internal. Just a few changes.

I forgot, of course, about Hollywood. I forgot about the golden idol of the Likable Protagonist.

The Likable Protagonist, see, is as essential as "Cut to:" to the world of conventional screenwriting. The theory goes that if an audience is going to spend two hours watching a movie, they're going to want to care about the main character -- otherwise, what is the point? And it does make a fair amount of sense, despite the many films made about people who do horrible things to each other for fun and profit -- Dangerous Liaisons, for example, not to mention Danny DeVito's entire oeuvre. If some guy ::coughDavidSpadecough:: annoys the crap out of me, I don't really want to watch a movie featuring him. Quid pro quo.

However, what just plain stinks is when interesting protagonists -- spunky characters with edges, who aren't necessarily good-looking, well-scrubbed, and wholesome -- are completely declawed for fear that a slight deviation in character might lead to a deviation in box office receipts. The bad kind of deviation, that is.

The character of Roy in Matchstick Men has his quirks, not to mention a socially crippling psychological disorder. But in the end, he's a well-meaning guy who makes a living ripping other people off. It's something Garcia doesn't shy away from, and it's a fascinating thing to witness. In fact, it's nearly impossible to tear away from these scenes where Roy does what he does best -- playing on the greed of rubes and making off with money that it's hardly likely they can spare.

There have been movies about grifters and con artists before. But none of them were ever so frank about the business of their business. So I had hopes, expectations raised by the existence of this great little movie in my head, based on the great little book that Garcia wrote. And you know what? I really should know better by now.

Sitting through a two-hour movie when you already know the big twist (yeah, there's one of those, and just knowing that there's a twist probably ruins it for you -- sorry about that) can be a bit tiresome. But even more tiresome is watching Nicholas Cage reduce a complicated character to cleaning supplies and facial tics; seeing every ounce of moral complexity vacuumed away like lint on a carpet. Carpet, hell, the movie's linoleum. Covers the floor, but flat as Kansas.

My brother has seen the movie, but has not read the book, and he liked it. He, too, appreciates the concept of a great little movie. But I was talking to him about it later, explaining the many ways in which I felt it failed.

"You know that cute little scene where Nicholas Cage teaches the girl the lottery scam?"

"In the laundry room. Yeah."

"Well, in the book, he doesn't teach her that. He teaches her some twenty-dollar-bill thing. He pulls the laundry scam himself, for like two grand. And he doesn't give the money back afterwards."

"Really?"

"Yeah. And in the book, she still had kids."

"Oh."

Given all that, it doesn't make much sense for me to get huffy about the almost-happy ending they slapped on -- because the character Roy became, full of platitudes about how he never ripped off anyone who didn't deserve it, does deserve the ending he got in the movie. But I liked what happened to Roy so much more in the book. I liked being conflicted over what I felt his ultimate fate should be, torn between liking this man and hating what he did. I liked the way Garcia kept me in that limbo, uncertain, right to the last line.

In the long run, though, I guess I win. Because if I had seen Matchstick Men without reading the book, it would have been a decent two-hour diversion, disposable and fun. But the book fits nicely into my bag, and some rainy Sunday morning, I just might curl up in bed and reacquaint myself with Roy.

Sometime later. After the memory of Cage's twitches have faded.

Matchstick Men by Eric Garcia Random House ISBN: 0812968212 240 Pages