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Matchstick Men

A movie about conmen works best when the audience gets conned, too. Sometimes it's in the form of not knowing just how the big score is supposed to work, or even just giving over to believing the possible could work, as in Ocean's 11. And sometimes, the con is about accepting that we've all convinced ourselves that subtle acting is not good acting.

Such is the case with Matchstick Men, a decent movie made occasionally uncomfortable by an Oscar-winning actor chewing scenery. To be fair, that's what the story calls for him to do, and Nicolas Cage summons every ounce of his energy (and some of Dustin Hoffman's) to hold our attention.

Surrounding him in the edges is the story of a con artist (as Cage's Roy Waller stresses again and again) trying to get out of the life, getting drawn back in for one last big score. Of course, Roy also has a new life intruding in the form of the daughter he only vaguely guessed he might have.

Don't mistake this for Paper Moon. The film never sinks to being maudlin, even though it's obvious that Roy wants so badly to be a good father. And though Angela (Alison Lohman) may have a knack for her old man's game, she's anything but precocious. Her presence is little more than a complication, especially as Roy's partner Frank (Sam Rockwell) pressures him for that last big taste.

Complicating it all, and allowing for that big Oscar-bait performance, is Roy's problems as an obsessive-compulsive. Occasionally, though, Cage sure sounds a lot like Rain Man.

And yet there's an easy style to the whole thing, with Ridley Scott's most on-target directing in some time.

Often an artist who teeters between style over substance and just phoning in the job, here Scott finds a purpose for every trick he pulls. Cutting frames as Roy's anxieties overtake him, the director paints a vivid picture of OCD.

He lights the film in a very sterile, washed-out manner for a good portion, underscoring how badly Roy needs to keep things tidy and, to be honest, bland. Only Angela keeps forcing real color into his life.

Besides a fairly affecting character arc, Matchstick Men also has clever plotting. In hindsight, only a couple of scenes exist as red herrings. Though they mar an otherwise solid story, you won't notice at the time.

What you will notice is really good work. If Cage is annoying to some, it's because he always dares to make strong choices. You at least always end up with something interesting.

But really making it fly are Scott's supporting cast. Slowly and slyly moving into the public eye, Rockwell delivers another great performance, quiet in contrast to Cage but no less compelling.

As the daughter trying to absorb who her father is, Lohman portrays teen angst with believability, and manipulates her co-stars well. Is it a relief to know the actress is actually 24? Somebody give her a grown-up role quick.

The ending will divide viewers, and it's one that makes the difference between Matchstick Men being a great film and a good movie. Perhaps screenwriter Nicholas Griffin just couldn't resist tidying things up, or maybe there was pressure from elsewhere. It may not be needed, but it gives the movie a mass appeal that feels a little too slick.

Still, after a bad August at the movies, September is shaping up nicely.


Derek McCaw

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