Fri, Oct 10, 2003 - Page 20 News List

Exploring the art of the confidence trick in LA

By A. O. SCOTT  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICES

Frankie and Roy, the main characters in Ridley Scott's Matchstick Men, are Los Angeles con men -- Roy prefers the term con artist -- whose temperamental differences only a screenwriter could devise. (The writers, in this case, are Nicholas Griffin and Ted Griffin, adapting Eric Garcia's novel.)

Frankie, played by Sam Rockwell with his usual snaggle-toothed grifter charm, is an easygoing slob who arrives at his partner's door munching on a cheeseburger, mayonnaise smeared on his chin, crumbs tumbling after him. He must do this to emphasize, by contrast, Roy's compulsive, even pathological neatness. Roy (Nicolas Cage) is a bouquet of blossoming neuroses. He hoots, twitches, sputters and marches through a thousand daily rituals, exhibiting symptoms of Tourette's syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder and sundry other complaints, which he keeps at bay, just barely, with the help of medication.

It can be quite enjoyable, if also a little exhausting, to watch Cage act crazy. What fun there is to be had in Matchstick Men, which opens today nationwide, comes mainly from the mad syncopation of his performance.

To be effective at his job, which consists mostly of suckering people on the telephone with promises of valuable prizes, he must be suave, meticulous and in control, for which his personality disorder is both a help and a hindrance.

To complicate matters further, just as he and Frankie are embarking on a complex and risky long con, Roy, with the help of his new therapist (Bruce Altman), reunites with his teenage daughter, Angela (Alison Lohman), whose mother split up with Roy while she was still pregnant.

Roy's zealously maintained domestic order is predictably disrupted by Angela's adolescent anarchy, but just as predictably, her presence opens him up and helps him discover feelings he had repressed or swept aside. The movie's idea of parenthood is a familiar one, at once cautionary and comforting: having a child, it suggests, will wreck your life, but it will also make you a better person. (This notion, needless to say, is wildly narcissistic, absurdly melodramatic and unconscionably sentimental. It is not, however, altogether inaccurate.)

Film Notes:

Matchstick Men

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Starring: Nicolas Cage (Roy Waller), Sam Rockwell (Frankie), Alison Lohman (Angela), Bruce Altman (Dr. Klein) and Bruce McGill (Chuck Frechette)

Running time: 116 minutes

Taiwan Release: yesterday


And when Angela tells Roy that, despite what her mother has told her, he's not a bad guy after all, his carefully maintained defenses melt away. Having subsisted almost entirely on tuna fish and cigarettes, he starts buying Ben & Jerry's by the quart and sending out for extra-messy pizza when his attempts at home cooking fail.

Cage is so adept at playing Roy's quick changes that the fundamental illogic of the character is easy to overlook. Lohman shows the same pitch-perfect balance of guilelessness and coquetry she brought to White Oleander last year, and she helps the picture overcome its inherent implausibility.

Following closely in the wake of Freaky Friday and Thirteen, Matchstick Men confirms that the difficulty of raising a teenage girl is this year's official family-movie theme, much as paternal grief was last summer's.

Thirteen exploits the topic for maximum shock and discomfort; Freaky Friday plays it for warm, boisterous comedy. In Scott's hands, though, the volatile emotions of parenthood underwrite a slick, unsatisfying con.

It is something of a relief that the director has, at least for the moment, set aside the bombast and self-importance that characterized his last three movies, Gladiator, Hannibal and Black Hawk Down. Matchstick Men is chamber music instead of grand opera; its stop-and-go pacing and everyday scenery recall nothing so much as the misbegotten Gigli. It is less laughably awful, partly because of the actors, and partly because Scott's visual brio papers over what might otherwise be glaring contrivances and plot holes.

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