Matchstick Men: A Novel About Grifters with Issues by Eric Garcia (2002)
Matchstick Men directed by Ridley Scott (2003)
This is the second Ridley Scott movie I have covered so far. The first being House of Gucci, so I will link to that in case it interests you.
Roy is a conman who has OCD and anxiety. The doctor he got his meds from has left town, and after he suffers a bad episode, his partner Frank sets him up with a doctor he knows through his mom (in the movie it’s his aunt). This new doctor starts giving him new pills, and after talking to Dr. Klein about his past, he ends up learning he has a 14-year-old daughter from when he was briefly married.
The daughter, Angela wants to meet him and the two of them become close and Roy notices how much lighter and happier he is with her in his life. He also discovers the meds Dr. Klein has been giving him aren’t even real meds, and that it is actually Angela that has him feeling so good.
He decides he wants to get joint custody of her, but to do so, he needs to quit the con and get a real job. He tells Frank, and Frank asks if they could just pull one last big con so Frank can have a nest egg before finding a new partner.
In this last con, things go wrong and long story short-Frank was conning Roy the whole time with the help of Angela who wasn’t his real daughter and Dr. Klein, who wasn’t a real doctor and Roy is left penniless.
It isn’t the book’s fault that I went into this already having seen the movie, and therefore knowing the plot twist. If I went in blind, I think I would have rated it higher but because I wasn’t blown away by the reveal, it got a lower rating. Having said that, there have been books I read where I knew the twist, yet it was still a fantastic reading experience. Maybe reading a book and already knowing the end, is the true test on whether a book is written well or not.
I’m not saying this book wasn’t well written though. I gave it a 3.5 on Goodreads and enjoyed the character development of Roy. We don’t get much character development of anyone else, because this is written from Roy’s perspective. And in order to keep the reveal a surprise, we aren’t able to see much into Frank or Angela because if we did it would reveal their true intentions.
It was an entertaining book though and there a couple scenes that really capture Roy’s OCD and anxiety really well.
I saw this movie around the time when it came out, which was almost twenty years ago now!
The ending was such a shock that even though it has been almost two decades, I have always remembered that Frank and Angela were in it to con Roy. I didn’t remember the details on how it was done though.
Ridley Scott is the director, and I am impressed with what a wide variety of incredible movies he has done. There are well known, amazing directors, where you can tell when you are watching one of their movies. Either by the storyline, the way it is filmed, or even by the actors they frequently use. This isn’t the case, at least for me, when it comes to Ridley Scott. His movies vary so much!
Steven Spielberg was originally attached to direct but dropped out to do Catch Me If You Can, which is a great movie and one I have a book vs movie for!
The movie is great at making us feel the anxiety Roy feels, with the colors, the quick shots, and camera angles. The part when they are inside and the woman opens the sliding glass door was great, seeing how Roy feels about her letting outside in.
I will just say right off the bat, I love this movie. Part of it is the nostalgia, but it is also so well done, and the cast couldn’t be better!
Nicolas Cage is in the lead role of Roy, and while Cage has been known to be in some bad movies, he is an amazing actor! I was happy to see with Pig last year that he was getting more positive reviews and kind of reminding people that he is a very talented actor.
Sam Rockwell is one of my favorite actors. I talked about him in my episode for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and while covering that it made me realize I had never talked about Rockwell before and it is thanks to that episode that I am even covering this one!
Anyway, seeing Rockwell in any movie just makes me so happy. He brought so much personality to the character of Frank and even though his character is a sleazebag, I still couldn’t bring myself to hate his character because I just love Rockwell so much!
Alison Lohman is an actress I have liked, though admittedly haven’t seen a ton of her stuff. But I do love her in the movie Drag Me to Hell which is a Sam Rami horror movie. Typical to Rami’s style, it can be on the comedic side which I know some people love comedy in their horror movies, while others prefer straight horror. Anyway, I wouldn’t say it is a movie that is going to give nightmares, but it is just a great story and it also has Justin Long right around the time he started to be very attractive (in my opinion).
Lohman showed up to this audition though dressed as a teenage boy, and she even fooled Scott into thinking she was a teenager when she was actually 22.
I love movies about con men, The Sting being one of my all-time favorite movies. But last year I read Flimflam Man which was written by the daughter of a grifter and it gives you real insight into what these men are actually like. Hollywood has you cheering for these guys and glamorizing it, as Hollywood tends to do with just about everything. When in reality, con artists are not good people.
Roy in the book
The movie makes Roy more likeable in the movie in a few ways. For one, in the book we see him hustling people who are vulnerable-either because they are young, old, have a recently deceased spouse, or are poor and desperate. One example is when he does the lottery trick. In the book this is early on when he buys the numbers for the winnings from the day before, drops it in front of a woman in a laundry mat and she thinks the ticket is for yesterday’s lottery numbers and that they won the smaller payout for have five of the six numbers right.
She tells them they can split it, when Roy says how he is going back home soon, so he can’t hang around. Plus, his wife doesn’t even know he is in this state, she thinks he’s somewhere else for a guy’s weekend when really he is in this other place seeing the woman he is having an affair with. If he comes home with money won from the lottery here, he will have to admit to her he is cheating.
The laundry mat woman says in that case, she can pay him from her own bank account and then she herself will go tomorrow to pick up the winnings. Their ticket is worth like 50 grand I think, but the woman is only able to give him about six grand and tells him that’s all she has in her account and she’s sorry it isn’t close to the 25,000 that would be his half. Oh, and this woman has like five kids or something and clearly isn’t well off.
Anyhow, that’s that. He takes all the money this woman has, and though the book kind of talks about the guilt he feels, he clearly isn’t feeling so guilty that he gives the money back or something. We also see him and Frank con an elderly woman whose husband had just died.
Roy and Heather
We also learn about Roy and Heather’s relationship in the book. She was 19 and he was in his early 20’s when he sees her at a bar looking sexy. He hits on her and she’s into him, but then she says she is going to dance and he’s like cool, I can wait at the bar. However, she starts dancing and all these other guys come over and are rubbing up against her and she is loving the attention. Roy starts to feel jealous and walks over and tries to cut in, however these other guys are like get out of here, she’s ours. Roy gets so angry that he breaks a guy’s arm and the bone is sticking out. Heather is of course thrilled by all of this and goes home with him. They are married a month later and a few months after that, she tells him she is pregnant. They didn’t have much of a relationship to begin with, it seems the way they met reflects how their whole marriage was. Anyway, she tells him she is pregnant and Roy gets upset and hits her multiple times, though he specifies that he never hit her stomach. She leaves that night, but he says it wasn’t the hitting that made her leave and that she was bound to leave at some point because there was no way their relationship would have lasted.
Roy in the movie
The movie doesn’t give us those details about he and Heather, but he does say that “she left me with a black eye which I gave her and a bun in the oven that could have been anyone’s”.
In the book Roy was more violent than he was in the movie, but of course giving a woman a black eye is a terrible thing. It’s just kind of briefly mentioned in the movie and then it moves on.
Then the lottery con I talked about in the book, doesn’t happen in the movie. Or at least not in the same way. The first we see of the ticket trick is when Roy is teaching Angela. She is the one who drops the ticket and the whole thing about splitting it 50/50 with the woman. In the movie though, the ticket winnings were only $600, and Angela says she can’t go with her to pick up the money because her mom wants her home. The woman then gives Angela $300 from her own account. Not taking every cent the woman has, the way they did in the book, lessens the blow. But then, Angela is proud of herself and Roy is proud of her, however he tells her she now needs to go back and make up a reason to give the woman back her $300 which Angela does.
We see Roy and Frank conning people, but we only really see the Chuck con, and then the couple at the beginning of the movie. Not showing up the ways they pull these small hustles on everyday people and vulnerable people, makes them more likeable than in the book.
In the book, Frank says there is this guy he has known for a couple years named Saif who runs a fake art racket and how Frank has wanted to work with him. Roy is adamantly against it, saying he doesn’t want to work with anyone else because you don’t know if you can trust them.
However, after bringing Angela on a job, he agrees to see Saif. They start running fake art and make good money from it.
Saif is frequently talking about how he wants to partner with them and learn the grift, but Roy has no interest in furthering their partnership with him.
The Chuck Con
In the book, there is a part when Angela is with Roy, and Frank calls saying he’s got a live one at the airport and they can make a lot of money but Roy has to show up right away. Frank doesn’t yet know about Angela (at least that’s what they want Roy to think). Roy has no choice but to bring her and decides to have her provide the distraction they need so Roy can do the suitcase switch.
They pull the con and it goes smooth, but Frank is upset Roy brought in Angela because Roy always makes a fuss about not including others in their schemes. This is also when we learn Angela has a record because she was arrested the year prior for stealing gum and then putting up a fight with the cops.
In the movie, the airport/switch briefcases con had been something they had been working on for a while. While Roy is with Angela, Frank calls saying that the mark, Chuck, moved the day up and they have to do it right now. Once again, Roy brings Angela and has her provide the distraction. Once again things go smooth. That is, until they are trying to drive away and Chuck comes running after Roy and Angela. There is a chase through the parking garage, but they are able to get away.
As in the book, they meet up with Frank and once again we learn that Angela has a record.
In book and movie, he tells her they won’t be seeing each other for a while, but in the movie, he is much harsher with her. Through her tears, Angela gives him a figurine she had bought in the airport gift shop.
This all comes full circle in the end, when Chuck breaks into Roy’s house while he is out with Angela and has a beat-up Frank with him. Roy comes home, Chuck has a gun and says he wants his money back, plus a cut of everything they make in the future.
Angela goes to get the money, and instead comes back with a gun and is crying. She ends up shooting Chuck, and Roy has Frank drive Angela somewhere safe. When he comes back in, Chuck beats him over the head and he is knocked out. He awakes in a hospital and there are cops there wanting info cause Chuck was found dead (he “died” soon after hitting Roy).
Roy says he wants to talk to his doctor and has Dr. Klein show up and he tells Klein is bank info and asks him to use some of his money to get Angela safe.
He later awakes and realizes he isn’t in a real hospital. He rushes home and sees the money in his dog statue is gone, and there is a note from Frank, kind of saying he’s sorry, but doing so in a jerky way. Roy also goes to see Heather and asks where Angela is. Heather tells him she doesn’t have a daughter and that she lost the baby she had been pregnant with.
It all comes together and Roy realizes the whole thing was a con to get his huge saving account.
In the book, when Roy tells Frank he is retiring, Frank asks if they can pull one last con. Roy agrees to pull a semi-long con involving Saif. They make Saif think they are going to let him in on a hustle but tell him since he’s the new guy he needs to front the money. It will be a drug deal, where they get a lot of cocaine and have the money to pay, but then they are going to have a fake cop show up and bust the whole thing. The guy bringing the drugs will freak out and run, leaving the drugs, and Roy, Frank and Saif will get both the money and the drugs.
This doesn’t go as planned though, because the guy selling the drugs catches on and knows it’s a fake cop. Drama ensues, Roy is shot, there is a scuffle, and Frank tells Saif to make a run for it.
When Saif is gone, we see that everyone was in on it, to get Saif’s money and the cocaine was just baking powder.
All is good, until they walk outside of the abandoned building they were in and see Saif along with a bunch of cops. Turns out Saif was an undercover cop and now they are all under arrest. Angela lunges at Saif, once again there is a scuffle, and Roy is knocked out.
He wakes up in a hospital and Frank is there. He tells him that in the drama, Angela ended up killing Saif. She is now in prison and her bail is half a mil. Roy thinks back to how traumatizing her jail stay was last time and can’t bear the thought of her already having been in jail for a few days while he was unconscious.
He tells Frank his bank info, tells him to get the 500,000 out and bail Angela out and get her somewhere safe.
Time passes and Roy is like, man why haven’t I heard from Frank. He leaves the hospital (which is real in the book).
He goes to Frank’s apartment and knocks and yells for Frank. A neighbor comes out and is like, are you looking for the guy who used to live here? He tells Roy that Frank moved out yesterday and had a young woman with him with a foul mouth.
Roy goes to Heather’s and she says she doesn’t know an Angela and that she had an abortion when she was pregnant with his baby and so they don’t have a child together. He checks his horse staute, it’s empty (in the book there is no letter from Frank). Calls the bank to hear what he already knows-that he done’st have a cent left.
Movie and book after Roy is conned
After Roy realizes he’s been had, we flashforward a year. We see he is a carpet salesman and “Angela” and her boyfriend come in. She is clearly uncomfortable, not knowing Roy worked there. She finds a reason to get alone with Roy and they both seem to get some closure. She tells him Frank didn’t give her a fair cut of the money, and that it was just a one-time thing and she’s straight. She also says the guy really is her boyfriend, not a mark. Roy basically forgives her, saying his line about how she didn’t take his money, he gave it to them. Which is what he would say about their marks-Roy doesn’t take the marks money, they give it to him. Which is true, but obviously not the whole truth. Anyway, from there he goes home and we see he is with the cashier he has been flirting with throughout the movie, and she is pregnant. It seems the whole ordeal was a blessing in disguise because it ultimately led him to a happier life.
In the book, it ends with Roy in the diner where he used to hustle people with Frank. There are some young kids doing the exact card trick game he and Frank were doing in the first scene in the book.
Roy of course sees the hustle, but just goes along with it, because why not. When they ask him how much he wants to bet, he puts down everything he has in his pockets-money, hospital tag, receipts, etc. They hustle him and take his money. Then warn him to not be so trusting, other people out there could take much more from him.
He then goes back to his sandwich, realizing he has no money to pay for it but not caring.
The ending here isn’t a happy one like in the movie, but I don’t feel too bad for Roy. I mean, I do. He was trying to become a better person and loved Angela. But I think he’ll be fine. He’s a matchstick man! He knows how to make something out of nothing.
Book vs Movie
It’s funny how oftentimes, movies make the ending happier or more uplifting than books do. I like books for that reason. Not giving books the happily ever after that Hollywood loves to tack on.
Having said that, I like the movie ending. It was good to see Roy going straight and in a relationship with a child on the way. I also liked that we saw him happen to run into “Angela” and get that closure. Of course, she could still be conning and was lying to him when she saw him at the carpet story. But it seemed like she was being honest.
I liked the book ending as well and the ambiguity there. Roy is left to assume that Frank and Angela are partners and she isn’t made out to be as sweet as movie Angela was.
I would have to say the movie wins on this one though. It is just such a great, fun movie with heart. Acting is amazing, and overall, it is a solid adaptation of the book.