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Tuesday, October 14, 2003

I saw Matchstick Men over the weekend.

Matchstick Men is about a con artist played by Nicholas Cage who has had a severe case of obsessive-compulsive disorder for fifteen years. He lives in isolation, imagining that the lint in his carpet is growing, eating nothing but tuna fish, and counting to three before he can open a door. He never dates.

Events in the movie force Cage to see a new psychiatrist who makes him talk about his feelings before handing over OCD medication.

Cage says that he has had these symptoms since he left his wife with "a black eye and a bun in the oven." The psychiatrist questions Cage about what happened with the pregnancy.

Cage looks sick and profoundly distressed when he answers the question. His face and the script make it clear that what is haunting him is the prospect that the child was aborted. When the psychiatrist suggests that Cage call his ex-wife to find out just what did happen, Cage can't bring himself to do that. Again, it's clear that Cage is not afraid to find out that he has a child. What he fears is that he'll find out that he doesn't have a child.

Cage powerfully portrays this sickness and dread. Although I haven't read every single review online of Matchstick Men, none of those I did read say, "It's psychologically implausible that this man has OCD and can't relate to women because he's worried that his child bought the farm."

That's an interesting omission, isn't it? It tells us something about a shift in the zeitgeist that reviewers haven't tried to build a case that Cage's strong psychological reaction is implausible.

The child turns up. Cage's symptoms relax. The movie doesn't take a position on whether his symptoms relax because he now knows that the child made it into the world alive, or because of the emotional bond he successfully establishes with his daughter.

A number of reviewers express some disappointment with how the film ends. That's also interesting. What follows is a spoiler if you haven't yet seen the movie.

Cage himself, as it turns out, has been conned by his partner. There is no daughter but Cage gives up the combination to a lockbox containing his life savings (a million dollars of saved grift) in order to save the person he thinks is his child.

This troubles some reviewers, but it doesn't seem to trouble Cage. He scrapes up the courage to visit his ex-wife for the first time and learns that their child miscarried.

Cage doesn't react to the news that his child died a natural death by retreating back into mental illness--which again reminds us that his original illness sprang from the fear that he played an instrumental role in the death of his own child.

Nor does Cage react to the con that catches him by retreating into mental illness. What he does is:

--gives up the life of a grifter;
--takes a job as a carpet salesman in a carpet store where he is shown treating his down-market customers with respect and care;
--marries the sweet woman who used to ring up his cans of tuna fish at the grocery store; and
--comes home at the end of an honest day's work to embrace his wife...and happily pat her very pregnant tummy.

What's not to like?



I can understand that some reviewers just don't like pat redemptive endings. Here's Right Wing Film Geek registering his disapproval. (Scroll down.) I suppose I like it more than I might otherwise because the con played on Cage has the unintended secondary effect of revealing to him that he did not lose a child to abortion and this, along with the emotional connection he forms with his pseudo-daughter, helps restore his emotional health.

In point of fact, the pink fairytale glow of the ending pales in comparison to the fairytale element of the very short scene where Cage looks up his ex-wife and she sadly says, "I lost that baby." In real life, our modern man looking for that bit of his history would nine times out of ten find out that in the face of his desertion and abuse, an abortion had occurred.

After writing my original comments, I was struck by an interesting feature of the role played by the bogus psychiatrist. The American Psychiatric Association dismisses the idea that abortions--or abortions men fear might have occurred--can haunt us or give rise to psychiatric symptoms. However, since the bogus psychiatrist has to find a hook with which to reel in Cage, when Cage says that he is haunted by not knowing what happened with that pregnancy, the bogus psychiatrist doesn't shut him down. He lets him talk about it, and draws him out further. He allows him to explore his feelings and doesn't invalidate the idea that Cage is in pain over this. Maybe that's when I should have figured out that the psychiatrist was part of a con.

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