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Matchstick Men

Pros and Cons

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Roy Waller utters the distinction twice: He's not a criminal; he's a "con artist. " Con men, like lovable Mafioso, are embraced by audiences -- and filmmakers concur, churning out far more films about charming con men than about the brain-dead souls who hold up gas stations. It may be the pleasure of watching a crime play out on wits and not firepower, or perhaps our palpable sense of superiority -- the victims deserved it; we would never be that dumb.

Roy (Nicolas Cage) and his partner Frank (Sam Rockwell) run a moderately successful con "office." Frank's ambitious, and itchin' to do a "long con" -- a tricky set-up with more risks, but higher payoffs -- but all Roy's energy is expended managing his neuroses. He's a pathologically clean loner with obsessive/compulsive tendencies; when agitated, which is frequently, he dissolves into twitches, gulps and dry heaves.

Frank tips Roy off to a shrink (Bruce Altman) who suggests Roy's problems are guilt-related and prescribes human contact. Roy ends up reuniting with a 14-year-old daughter, Angela (Alison Lohman), he never knew he had. Her infectious manner causes Roy to lighten up, and when she exhibits a flair for miscreant behavior, Roy is quietly elated. He agrees to do the big job on Frank's chosen mark (Bruce McGill), and whaddya know -- Angela can help too.

Working from a novel by Eric Garcia, director Ridley Scott scales back from his full-bore action mode (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down) and seems to enjoy this film's lazier pace (underscored with music from Mantovani). Rockwell quite simply gets all the best lines, which he tosses off effortlessly. Cage effectively captures Roy's perpetual struggle not to explode -- perhaps because Cage the actor keenly feels the impulse to over-emote, which for the most part he suppresses here. Lohman, who made an impressive debut in last year's sudser White Oleander, pouts and burbles believably.

The father-daughter con act may remind you of Peter Bogdonavich's masterful 1974 film Paper Moon -- a far superior film that managed to be funny, wise and bittersweet without looking as if it were struggling to do so. Ultimately, Matchstick Men isn't quite madcap enough to be a farce, heartfelt enough to be a domestic dramedy or clever enough to be a really good story.

The sweetest pleasure in viewing a con flick is being let in on a particularly inventive or convoluted con, and here the film mostly fails to deliver: The jobs Roy and Frank work are really Con Artistry 101, and you've seen 'em in dozens of other films. One of the film's scams may generate that delicious scrambling "hey, wait a minute ..." buzz, but by the time the facts line up, the film has switched gears rather jarringly and the pleasure all but evaporated.


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