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Review: 'Matchstick Men' lights up

Con man film benefits from sharp performances

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

Nicolas Cage plays a neurotic con artist in "Matchstick Men."

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Nicolas Cage
Ridley Scott
Sam Rockwell
Alison Lohman

(CNN) -- "Matchstick Men" is a delightful dark comedy about a neurotic con artist, Roy, played by Nicolas Cage; his quirky partner in crime, Frank, played by Sam Rockwell; and Roy's newly discovered 14-year-old daughter, Angela, played by the remarkable 24-year-old actress Alison Lohman.

The story -- based on a novel by Eric Garcia -- begins with Roy and Frank pulling off little scams involving bogus water filtration systems. The bucks are small, though the money does add up. Frank is pushing for a big score, but Roy is hesitant, mainly because his personal life is falling apart.

It seems Roy has a few little issues: he's an obsessive-compulsive, chain-smoking agoraphobe who can barely function if he's not medicated. His doctor has disappeared, and through Frank's recommendation, he begins seeing a new shrink, played by Bruce Altman.

During therapy sessions, old issues surface, including the fact that Roy used to be married and may have a child. He soon discovers that he does, in fact, have a daughter, and the good doctor arranges a reunion.

Applying confidence

Enter Angela, a kinetic bundle of pent-up energy who explodes into Roy's well-ordered but barely functioning existence.

Matchstick Men
Cage's character gains new life by finding his long-lost daughter, played by Alison Lohman.

Soon Angela has wormed her way into every aspect of Roy's life, including his professional world as a scam artist. She takes to the work like a duck to water.

Completely entranced by his newfound daughter and with fresh confidence provided by his new shrink, Roy reluctantly allows Frank to talk him into pulling one final big scam, after which Roy plans on retiring and spending time with Angela.

Of course, nothing goes as planned, as the audience is taken on a wild ride full of unexpected twists and turns featuring lots of red herrings, false leads, and plot U-turns.

Movies about con men, grifters, flim-flam men -- matchstick men, if you will -- have long been staples of Hollywood storytelling. The convoluted nature of the con game, with hidden surprises lurking at every turn, is intrinsic to this genre's success as popular entertainment. The charm of this particular piece of work lies not just in the craft of the con, but also the personal journeys taken by the characters involved.

Cage has made a career out of playing offbeat, off-center guys with plenty of nervous tics and severe phobias, in films ranging from "Raising Arizona" (1987) to last year's "Adaptation." With "Matchstick Men," he continues this trend with a vengeance.

Cage loves to pull out all the stops when creating a role, and at times he has ruined films with his over-the-top antics: a case in point is the 1986 film "Peggy Sue Got Married." But with the right part, Cage is untouchable. "Matchstick Men" gives him just such a part.

Acting with heart

Matchstick Men
Sam Rockwell (left) plays Cage's unscrupulous partner.

Rockwell is also perfect for his role as Frank, Roy's dubious protege. He plays Frank as a charming con man with great conviction and without one iota of conscience. With this film, he continues the winning streak begun by his performance in last year's "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," co-starring George Clooney, who made his directorial debut with the Chuck Barris biopic.

But the heart and soul of the film is Lohman, best known thus far for her scene-stealing portrayal opposite Michelle Pfeiffer in "White Oleander." Once again, she plays a teenager with complete conviction. She really makes you care about her character and her relationship with her long-lost father.

Director Ridley Scott is best known for such big-canvas films as "Gladiator" (2000) and "Blackhawk Down" (2001). But he has also helmned character-driven films, such as the classic female buddy flick "Thelma & Louise" in 1991. With "Matchstick Men," it's nice to see him once again tackle a smaller project aimed at an adult audience.

The only major flaw in this otherwise compelling film is the tacky Hollywood ending slapped on in the final reel. The book leaves you hanging as to Roy's future, but the film ties everything up with a nice little -- and unbelievable -- bow. Once Roy and Angela have their final meeting, you should leave the theater before the sap begins to run.

"Matchstick Men" opens nationwide on Friday, September 12, and is rated PG-13. The film was produced by Warner Bros., an AOL Time Warner company, as is CNN.

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