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Good con

A review of Matchstick Men

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Nicolas Cage plays Roy Waller, a con artist, neat freak and dad.
  • Nicolas Cage plays Roy Waller, a con artist, neat freak and dad.

Good con *Matchstick Men (PG-13)
Warner Bros. Pictures

Crime does pay, it just doesn't pay well." So Roy Waller (Nicolas Cage) says to his teen-age daughter Angela (Alison Lohman) about the life of being "a con artist, flim-flam man, matchstick man."

He should know. A lifetime as a con artist, and he and his partner Frank (Sam Rockwell) are still doing a small-time con -- calling people up and offering them fake prizes if they'll only buy a water filter to offset the taxes. Then they appear as agents of the federal trade commission, tell the victims that they've been conned, get them to sign a form allowing Frank and Roy access to their bank accounts, and then really clean them out. It is a con masquerading as an honest activity, masquerading as a con.

All of this continues as normal until the day that Roy runs out of the medication that keeps him from obsessively cleaning and re-cleaning his house. Full of tics and rituals, without his meds Roy's a complete wreck, an agoraphobic who only eats canned tuna and who can't leave the house without slamming the door three times. His partner finally convinces him to see a psychiatrist who uncovers that Roy's problems stem from the guilt of leaving his wife 14 years before while she was pregnant.

Once reunited with his teen-age daughter Angela, Roy's life turns around. He stops obsessing about his house and starts becoming a dad, complete with turning his daughter on to the family con trade. Then the real fun begins.

There are numerous pleasures from the con of Matchstick Men. The first is the acting, led in particular by Alison Lohman who does a wonderful job of playing a petulant teen-ager (the actress herself is 24, which is hard to believe when you see her on screen). Her gangly limbs, funny hair, and air of teen-age spontaneity are a delight to watch. Nicolas Cage -- whose tics and tremors slowly cease as he grows closer to his daughter -- plays off of her beautifully, and once she makes her appearance onscreen, his characterization really blossoms.

A second great pleasure is in the pacing. The film seems to start slowly and it then lags a little bit in the middle, but if you're enough of a believer in director Ridley Scott's talents, you'll likely come out of the theater believing that even these apparent flaws were part of his grand plan. Winding the audience in with near-perfect timing, beat by beat, scene by scene, the slow pacing allows for the intense pace at the end, the suspenseful payoff that will leave you shaking your head and trying to figure it all out. Scott is also a director with a beautiful eye for scene and light and he plays small spaces against large ones, light rooms against dark for a kind of visual rhythm that easily goes consciously unnoticed but that still contributes to the strength of the work.

At the core of the film is a story of the redemptive power of family relationships, and if Scott makes a wrong step anywhere, it is in the codas to the movie that try to hammer the morals home. This is a caper film, a wonderfully constructed caper film, full of suspense and good acting and real entertainment. The morals can be checked at the door -- go to enjoy being swept away in a con that has a great payoff at the end.

-- Andrea Lucard

Tinseltown, Cinemark 16

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