Well-acted 'Matchstick Men' succumbs to con game

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Special to the Journal-World

Nicolas Cage, left, plays a con man whose daughter (Alison Lohman) shows up unannounced in the quirky drama "Matchstick Men."

"One, two, three ..."

It's a familiar ritual for Roy (Nicolas Cage), whether he is unlocking a door three times or performing most other routine tasks that he must approach with a pacifying repetition in order to get through the day.

Roy is saddled with an obsessive-compulsive disorder and Tourette's-like mannerisms. Whether this makes him compelled to over-clean things or prevents him from venturing into large outdoor areas, the affliction is a burden on his life.

It doesn't help matters that he's a con man, with an ambitious junior partner (Sam Rockwell) trying to lure him into a big score. Nor does it make things easier that the daughter he never knew (Alison Lohman), has decided to contact him for the first time ... and she wants in on the action.

"You don't seem like you're a bad guy," she tells him.

He replies, "That's what makes me good at it."

Fresh from the outstanding comedy "Adaptation," Cage delivers another Oscar-worthy performance in "Matchstick Men." Finally, one of America's most interesting actors seems to have shaken the need to appear in big-budget junk fests such as "Windtalkers" and "Con Air" that he'd been cranking out as redundantly as Roy opens doors.

As with "Adaptation," where Cage played twin brothers with wildly different personalities," the seasoned actor never turns this latest role into a gimmick. Poor Roy may be wracked with quirky mannerisms, but Cage cuts through that to prove it's the man underneath that is the essence of this comedic drama.

As good as Cage is in this flashy showcase, co-star Lohman is his equal. Depicting the false bravado and gawky cluelessness of a 14-year-old is hard enough onscreen, especially considering the actress turns 24 this week. Think how clunky the line "Nice to meet you, Dad" would be if not delivered with utter conviction.

When tackling a contemporary movie that is primarily dialogue-driven, director Ridley Scott ("Black Hawk Down," "Gladiator") isn't exactly the first choice one would expect. The British filmmaker has always been more concerned with the visual elements of his projects than the people who inhabit the frame. Yet Scott really tones things down for this one.

He inserts a few camera tricks to simulate what it looks like from Roy's perception when his malady is getting the best of him. (One is triggered when a mark casually leaves a patio door open that Roy's mind begs him to shut.) But overall Scott lets the leisurely power of Ted and Nicholas Griffin's script (based on the Eric Garcia novel) dictate the approach.

Movie

Matchstick Men ***

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Nicolas Cage shines as an obsessive-compulsive con man who discovers he has a teenage daughter (Alison Lohman) who wants to meet him ... and get in on the action. The two leads furnish superior performances in this character-driven comedy, but the final act leans so heavily on The Big Con that the relationships get short shrift.

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If only the film had the confidence to stick with its character study arc, it might have been regarded as among 2003's strongest offerings. But instead the narrative gets too tricky for its own good during the third act.

Like "Identity" and "Swimming Pool" from earlier in the year, "Matchstick Men" thinks that a mind-altering turnaround is preferable to sustaining its initial storyline. Of the three, this flick handles the switcheroo the most gracefully. But here again is a case where the plot that the movie CLAIMS to be about is far more interesting than the REAL plot that is ultimately revealed.

(Note: That sentence will make a lot more sense once a viewer has experienced the revelation.)

In a film such as this, one can only increase the layers of deception so much before they suffocate the basic story. Avoiding this cinematic pitfall should be as easy as one, two, three.

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