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Matchstick Men

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Sam Rockwell (right) helps Nicholas Cage through a bad "Con Air" flashback.

© 2003, Warner Bros.
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Roy (Nicholas Cage) is a con man with a serious case of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Bilking the public with his partner, Frank (Sam Rockwell, typically uninteresting), Roy has amassed a great fortune, but he is unable to keep his emotions together. When he seeks the prescription pad of a random doctor, Roy is encouraged to seek out his 14-year-old daughter, Angela (Alison Lohman), whom he has never met before. As the father and daughter begin an apprehensive relationship with each other, Roy starts the wheels in motion for one last lucrative con, bringing along an excited Angela so that she can learn the ropes.

After conquering the box office with his triad of emotionally charged, pyro-enhanced hits ("Gladiator," "Hannibal" and "Black Hawk Down"), director Ridley Scott has decided to settle down. "Matchstick Men" is based on the novel by Eric Garcia, and adapted by Ted Griffin ("Ocean's Eleven") and Nicolas Griffin. The roar of the gladiatorial arena has been silenced, and Hannibal doesn't come out to chomp on anyone's brain, because this film is about the simple art of the con. At first, it does seem like an odd fit. It's as if Scott needed a break from his hugely-budgeted epics, and "Matchstick" provided two months in L.A. where the director didn't have to orchestrate huge dramatic movements. Whatever the case may be, it is great to see Scott try something new.

"Matchstick" is a domestic drama hidden inside a confidence scheme, and while con films are all the rage these days, Scott finds the pulse of the picture in the character moments. "Matchstick" is still filled with traditional Scott imagery, from the glossy sheen of the cinematography to the overcompensation of the camerawork in the opening of the picture. But beyond the glow of top-notch tech credits, Scott seems unusually comfortable with the relationship between Roy and Angela, making their situations of discovery and education the best in the film. Scott isn't known for making his actors the stars of the show, yet "Matchstick Men" is entirely dependant on the chemistry between the actors, and their placement in the story. For the first time in a long time, Scott succeeds in building relationships that touch the heart and are not distracted by the eye.

There aren't enough adjectives in the book to describe Cage when he's cooking in a role, and "Matchstick" gives the actor a big, meaty T-bone to work with. Building on the foundation of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Cage builds a true individual out of the script's parts. In the opening of the picture, it is easy to laugh at Roy's OCD procedures, but they soon give way and integrate with the character's parental journey in the film. Cage is a masterful talent, and when he finds himself a character that involves a lot of little bells and whistles, there is simply not a better actor around. Cage has had a lot of good roles in recent memory ("Adaptation" being the highlight), with "Matchstick Men" easily standing proud alongside the pack.

The real surprise of "Matchstick" is actress Alison Lohman. A 24-year-old playing a 14-year-old, Lohman nails the geeky personality of a teenager, along with their shotgun blasts of emotional fury. She's fantastic in the film, providing evidence that her somber, powerful work in last autumn's "White Oleander" was not the fluke that I originally thought.

The film's final act, when the payoff to Roy's scheme is revealed, is a little shakier in plot construction than the rest of "Matchstick Men." As previously mentioned, there has been a whole slew of recent films about swindling and double-crossing ("Confidence," "The Good Thief," Ted Griffin's own "Ocean's Eleven"), making "Matchstick" a little too easy to figure out. Made in a different era, "Men" would bubble with unexpected twists and turns, but as it stands now, the film is a bit antiquated when it comes time for revelations. The fun is in the journey (always my motto), and "Men" makes good on the promise of two hours where the audience can bask in the glow of terrific performances and a director who is, at least, trying on a different hat for a time before heading back to action-drenched epics. That is commendable.

Filmfodder Grade: B

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