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With: Nicolas Cage, Alison Lohman, Sam Rockwell
Written by: Ted Griffin, Nicholas Griffin, based on the novel by Eric Garcia
Directed by: Ridley Scott
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, violence, some sexual content and language
Running Time: 116
Date: 09/02/2003
IMDB

Matchstick Men (2003)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Match' Games

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Ridley Scott's 14th feature film Matchstick Men does not join his verybest work, nor does it join his very worst -- and he is a filmmakercapable of both extremes. Rather, this new con man comedy merely passesthe time in a pleasant way then disappears like a carelessly placedwallet.

A highly visual filmmaker, Scott makes fascinating use of light as either a force that traps his characters and isolates them (Alien, Blade Runner, Hannibal) or as a freeing force that opens their horizons (Legend, Thelma and Louise). As a result, his pictures come out best when mood and atmosphere play the most important parts.

Because of this, plot has never been one of Scott's strong points. When bogged down by such details in Gladiator, Scott merely edited around them as if they never happened.

Matchstick Men begins as a mood piece, and Scott captures the mood beautifully. Con artist Roy (Nicolas Cage) suffers from tons of neuroses, including a need to keep his house aerosol clean and to close every door three times.

Scott shuts Roy in with oppressive outside light sources -- and gets several laughs from the off-screen sounds of Roy closing doors and counting to three in several languages.

By contrast, Roy's partner Frank (Sam Rockwell) lives a bit more carefree. He pressures Roy into pulling off a long con, a big job involving switching stolen British pounds for a millionaire's (Bruce McGill) stash of U.S. dollars.

At the same time, Roy begins seeing a shrink (Bruce Altman), who convinces Roy to look up his teenage daughter Angela (Alison Lohman). Angela eventually figures out what her dad does for a living and joins in on a couple of cons.

Scott handles the relationship between the newly reunited father and daughter with great care, emphasizing the joys and pains. After Roy fails to satisfy Angela's appetite with his pasta dish, he orders pizza. Angela gulps down a few bites and announces, "I'm happy now!" and we're happy too. With their thick eyebrows and piercing eyes, they actually look like father and daughter too.

In another delightful scene, Roy plays his answering machine over and over, listening to a chirpy, love-filled "hi dad!" message.

But when a con goes wrong and all hell breaks loose, Scott doesn't know how to handle the subtle plot twists that keep us guessing. He drops a few too many clues too early and the ending becomes obvious. David Mamet would have triple-crossed us, pulling a second twist to undo the first, but Scott and screenwriters Ted and Nicholas Griffin seem to think they have us fooled.

Moreover, Scott drops the warm relationship stuff in favor of this big "surprise" and our involvement dwindles before it's over. Lohman -- who was amazingly good in last year's White Oleander -- gets big points for pulling off this role, a 14 year-old getting to know her dad again. (She's really 23.) Cage, in turn, throws in enough nervous ticks and twitches and eye flutters to please an army of Academy voters.

Rockwell, on the other hand, does his usual sexy swagger and gets away with it. He's one of those physically fearless actors who moves on camera as casually as if he were alone in his bedroom.

Inexplicably, Scott veers away from all this energy and chemistry and into a routine con job. And we can't help but feel just a little bit cheated.

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