A post-pubescent "Paper Moon" with a hell of a hair-pin twist, "Matchstick Men" features sublimely winning performances by Nicholas Cage, as an unhinged obsessive-compulsive con artist named Roy, and Alison Lohman ("White Oleander") as his tomboy-cutie teenage daughter Angela, who has such a gift for the grift that it sends her dad into a tizzy of pride, consternation and self-conscious moral conflict.
Her effervescent, skateboarding arrival into his life -- thanks to a new shrink (Bruce Altman) who encouraged him to look up the wife he left pregnant 14 years ago -- dishevels Roy's hospital-corners life. But surprisingly enough, her clothes strewn around his house, pizza dinners and ice cream breakfasts (Roy eats nothing but tuna fish -- from the can) slowly chip away at his neuroses (well that and those new blue pills the shrink is giving him) as our guy begins to enjoy fatherhood.
Soon he's loosened up so much he's ready to break his own rules of playing it safe with small-time flimflams and take a risky shot at a big-money "long con" -- a currency exchange sting on a shady businessman -- that his partner Frank (Sam Rockwell) has been pitching him for months. Of course, Angela wants in on the action too, so in a scene typical of the movie's spontaneous sense of humor, she begins cataloging aloud all her "learning experiences" with boys until he relents in a fluster of hear-no-evil fatherly instinct.
The details of this swindle are a tad confusing, but it hardly matters in a film so entertaining. Adapted from a novel by Eric Garcia and directed by Ridley Scott -- who is surprisingly deft with comedy after a long career of outsized drama and action ("Hannibal," "Black Hawk Down," "Gladiator," "Blade Runner," "Alien") -- "Matchstick Men" has a glib whimsy that is a perfect fit for the talents of its cast.
Tic-prone and amusingly anxious, Cage carries Roy's personality arc with 100 percent credibility -- from agoraphobe and chronic clean-freak (but a smoker nonetheless) who decides to not blow his brains out because it would mess up the carpet, to frantically devoted dad who begins to let down his guard to a potentially dangerous degree.
As Roy adjusts to angsty ups-and-downs of parenting a teenage girl, Cage's chemistry with Lohman becomes the movie's best asset. Extraordinarily natural in her impulsive adolescence (you'd never, ever guess she's really 23), the actress embodies with her whole being the entire range of Angela's personality, from giddy, 14-year-old ingenuousness to bursts of emotional vulnerability that bring out Roy's knee-jerked protective-papa instincts. (It's her apparently rocky relationship with her mom that eventually lands the girl on his couch on a semi-permanent basis.)
Underutilized but too talented and cool to be a scene-stealer, Rockwell ("Confessions of a Dangerous Mind") is charming and vaguely serpentine as Frank, who can't seem to decide if Angela is more of an asset or a distraction. And Scott picked a great supporting cast, including character actor Bruce McGill (who has been everything from D-Day in "Animal House" to a Southern congressman with a gay dog in "Legally Blonde 2") as the unexpectedly wily mark for the grifters' big score.
The director lends the film a snappy, Los-Angeles sunny but ever-so-slightly seedy style too, and he makes clever, effective yet unobtrusive use of herky-jerky frame removals and quick-chop edits to glimpse inside Roy's chaotically meticulous mind.
"Matchstick Men" ends a little too tidily, and lingering doubts about the complexities of the central scam do come back to haunt the film when working your way back through the twists after the credits roll and the fog clears. There are also a few potential plot give-aways that may tip off those who don't go with the flow.
But the picture's accumulation of shrewdness, talent, panache and wit supersede its retrospective faults. In fact, "Matchstick Men" is one of just a handful of films this year that I'm actually eager to see again.
Run time: 116 mins
In Theaters: Friday 12th September 2003
Box Office USA: $36.9M
Box Office Worldwide: $65.6M
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Production compaines: Warner Bros., ImageMovers, Scott Free Productions, Rickshaw Productions, LivePlanet, HorsePower Entertainment
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 82%
Fresh: 150 Rotten: 32
IMDB: 7.3 / 10
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Nicolas Cage as Roy Waller, Sam Rockwell as Frank Mercer, Alison Lohman as Angela, Bruce Altman as Dr. Klein, Bruce McGill as Chuck Frechette, Jenny O'Hara as Mrs. Schaffer, Steve Eastin as Mr. Schaffer, Beth Grant as Laundry Lady, Sheila Kelley as Kathy, Fran Kranz as Slacker Boyfriend, Tim Kelleher as Bishop, Nigel Gibbs as Holt, Bill Saito as Pharmacist #1, Tim Maculan as Pharmacist #2, Giannina Facio as Bank Teller
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