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Matchstick Men

In Matchstick Men, Nicolas Cage plays a character who's overcome a considerable handicap to rise to the top of his field. He'd be a tough fit for a feel-good magazine piece, however, having fought back obsessive-compulsive and phobic tendencies to excel at one dubious task: relieving the gullible of their money. It's tough work, but as the film opens, Cage has carved out a comfortable existence for himself, if comfortable is the right word for a man who needs daily medication to stop fixating on tiny carpet stains. By day, he works short-con phone frauds with protégé Sam Rockwell, who keeps urging him to go in for a big score. By night, he eats canned tuna, disposes of it in carefully sealed plastic bags, cleans up, and smokes cigarettes while wearing plastic gloves, as a single Frank Sinatra album spins over and over again. It may not be what anyone else would call happiness, but he seems to recognize that it's the best he's likely to get, and possibly better than he deserves. Haunted by an alcohol-fueled failed marriage and the child on the way when the relationship crumbled 14 years ago, he keeps a spotless kitchen to contrast with his sullied soul. Cage's tics and compulsions may keep the demons at bay, but when he begins seeing a new psychiatrist who agrees to help locate his child–who soon turns up in the form of Alison Lohman, an unmanageable, pigtailed teen eager to learn the tricks of Dad's trade–the system threatens to break down for good. Adapting a novel by Eric Garcia, screenwriters Ted and Nicholas Griffin and director Ridley Scott give life to the grift, fleshing out a book that occasionally reads like a collection of mismatched clever ideas. Working on a much smaller scale than he has of late, Scott is in top form here, bringing the same detailed sheen to the film's shady little world of Laundromats and cluttered offices that he brought to ancient Rome and modern Somalia, and pacing through the story with care and confidence. His cast breathes the same life into the grifters. A combination of criminal smoothness and overloaded neuroses, Cage pulls off the lead role better than any actor imaginable, and he's well-matched by Rockwell's funny brashness and a revelatory turn by Lohman, playing a girl for whom con-game role-play isn't too much of a stretch from the usual identity crises of adolescence. Scott lets the machinery of the film's grand-scale con click into place with a craftsman's expertise, but what's truly impressive is Matchstick Men's ability to capture the emotions that drive the machinery, getting beyond simple greed to find the other needs that draw marks to con men and make fools of both.


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