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"MATCHSTICK MEN"
(2003) (Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A neurotic con man must deal with discovering that he has a 14-year-old daughter all while trying to pull off his next job with his partner.
PLOT:
Roy Waller (NICOLAS CAGE) is a single, self-employed man who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder and agoraphobia. Nevertheless, and with the help of medication, he's been wildly successful at his job that just so happens to be conning people out of their money.

When a shortage of pills sends him off the deep end once again, his partner in crime, Frank (SAM ROCKWELL), suggest that he see a psychiatrist. Roy then reluctantly meets with Dr. Klein (BRUCE ALTMAN) who uncovers that Roy was once married and could very well be the father of a 14-year-old. Upon Roy's urging, Klein agrees to call the ex-wife and find out. He then gives Roy the news that schoolgirl Angela (ALISON LOHMAN) is indeed his daughter.

The two soon met, with Roy both scared and excited to meet her, while she seems to enjoy his various tics and neurotic behavior. It's not long before she convinces him to tell her what he does for a living and he's soon teaching her the tricks of his trade. That eventually involves them and Frank trying to dupe Chuck Frechette (BRUCE McGILL) in a currency exchange con.

Yet, with Roy's paternal instincts taking over, he soon begins to think about quitting, a thought that exposes him to far more trouble than he ever imagined.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Although many movies nowadays seem to be all about or at least preoccupied with their action-laden, twist-filled or surprise endings, they're nothing if the material preceding all of that isn't worth a hill of beans. Then again, what is worth a large mound of legumes? But then I digress...

Yes, in keeping with the old adage about the journey and not the destination being what's important, filmmakers need to make sure they've hooked, engaged and/or entertained viewers long before they unleash whatever their grand finale might be.

That's especially true for heist or con-themed films, a genre that's been tapped so much lately that the well is nearly dry. Although I usually enjoy such offerings, when I first heard about "Matchstick Men," all I could muster was the thought of another film featuring charismatic or efficient criminals duping others out of their money only to cause or be the victim of a concluding con.

After all, that's pretty much how all of them are structured and play out. This latest entry in the genre is no exception. While I obviously can't discuss in detail its conclusion or the elements leading up to it without giving it all away, I can happily report that the journey getting there occurs in a well-structured vehicle that delivers an enjoyable and entertaining ride.

Much of that's due to director Ridley Scott being behind the wheel. Whether it's telling the tale of an alien hunting down a space crew, two women on the run from the law, a Roman gladiator or the true life story of U.S. forces downed in a really bad place, Scott certainly knows his way around a camera and how to engage his viewers.

Taking more of the smaller-scale approach of "Thelma & Louise" rather than the epic one of "Gladiator," Scott assuredly works from Nicolas Griffin (making his feature debut) & Ted Griffin's ("Ocean's Eleven," "Best Laid Plans") tale of a con man beset by more worries than just how to pull off his latest con.

In fact, the Brit and his cast and crew pull something of a con on their viewers by making a con film that turns out to be more about the people than the actual criminal activity. While such behavior is present (including the obligatory and slightly disappointing twist at the end), what makes the film work so well is the main character and the lead actor's terrific embodiment of him.

You see, while Roy Waller is proficient at what he does, he's dogged by various demons that have essentially ruined and control his personal life and constantly threaten to derail his professional one. And if you're going to have such a character who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, agoraphobia and a reliance on pills to try to stymie their effects, you couldn't do much better than getting Nicolas Cage ("Adaptation," "Windtalkers") to sign on for the part.

Some may argue that his history of playing similarly neurotic and/or abnormal characters means he could probably sleepwalk through a role like this. Although that's true, the actor brings just the right nuances to the part that you can't help but sympathize with him (despite his occupation).

Not surprisingly, much of the film is played in a clever, lighthearted fashion that only further seduces and engages the viewer. That's only exacerbated when Roy's paternal instincts kick in upon the sudden arrival of his previously unknown but conjectured 14-year-old daughter played by Alison Lohman ("White Oleander," "The Million Dollar Kid").

He's simultaneously excited and terrified by the prospect of meeting and then interacting with her, but once they bond and he teaches her the ways of his world, the film really takes off. Granted, some of her actions and reactions seem a bit over the top. Yet, the 24-year-old actress is playing an emotionally high-strung teen and everything does make sense by the end.

Supporting performances from the likes of Sam Rockwell ("Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," "Heist") as Cage's partner in crime, Bruce McGill ("Runaway Jury," "Legally Blonde 2") as their latest dupe and Bruce Altman ("Changing Lanes," "Girl, Interrupted") as the con man's shrink are all fine.

While the twist at the end is a predictable given, my only complaint is that it's far too obvious, especially in terms of the film's suddenly shifted tone. Had Scott and company layered in some similar material and/or red herrings earlier in the film, the conclusion might have been fit in better.

That's not meant to imply, however, that it ruins the fun and engaging story that precedes it or the terrific work of Cage playing a unique sort of con man. Despite the slightly disappointing conclusion (in relation to everything else), "Matchstick Men" is nevertheless an engaging and fun tale. It rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed September 8, 2003 / Posted September 12, 2003


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