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Matchstick Men ****
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Starring Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell, Alison Lohman
Directed by Ridley Scott

Cage and Lohman grift through the motions.

     When entering the theater, the moviegoer is forced to wade through commercials, previews for upcoming attractions, cell phones, beepers and chatterbox thirteen and fourteen year olds happy to have the grand opportunity to catch up on sassy lip balms and bloody video games.  This can deter many patrons from making the trip out to the theater, doling out cash they'd rather not part with and sitting through something he or she didn't even know if they like.  Well, ladies and gentlemen, get your wallets out.  "Matchstick Men" makes it all worthwhile.
     Movies that center around con artists demand one thing: that you root for the guy breaking the law.  Sure, it's all rationalized by saying the guy getting ripped off deserved it.  He was a crook himself.  If he got outsmarted, maybe it okay.  "Ocean's Eleven," "The Sting," "The Grifters," "Confidence" - all require you to momentarily drop your morals at the door and enjoy some clever entertainment.  Then, when the film has ended, you may pick up your morals and go on being a fine, upstanding citizen.  And they'll make you love every minute of it.
     "Matchstick Men" is about two partners, Roy Waller (Nicolas Cage) and Frank Mercer (Sam Rockwell), who grift for a living.  Both do it in style, but only Frank goes on to enjoy the bounty.  You see, Roy is someone who suffers from an obssessive/compulsive disorder among other things.  He goes through rituals (shoes must be removed when on his carpet, opens and closes door three times before opening or closing it all the way) and tics (eye twitches, barking) from the moment he wakes up to the moment he falls asleep.
     When Roy drops the last of his medication down the garbage disposal and his doctor has skipped town, Frank gives him a number of a psychiatrist (Bruce Altman) that his aunt used before.  After repeated goading, Roy begins to open up about his life. 
     He admits to have been married fourteen years ago.  It seems that he was an alcoholic who lost his wife to some other guy, but not before his suspicions could be raised to believe he may have fathered a child.  He begs his doctor to call up the ex-wife and ask what transpired.  It seems he has a fourteen year old daughter named Angela (Alison Lohman).   
     He stumbles over himself trying to be a father to Angela, her tending to negate most of the uptight rituals he held dearly onto.  But Roy is a good guy, despite what he thinks of himself or what his ex-wife might say.  He slowly starts to adjust to life with a teenager.  He goes from no relationships outside of Frank to having a beautiful, precocious daughter. 
     She discovers her father's real occupation, despite his pleading to being an antique dealer.  She wants to learn the "art" of conning.  Roy finds a way to connect to the outside world through teaching Angela how to lie with style.
     Meanwhile, Frank's eyeing a big con, the kind of con that allows someone to purchase the high life.  But Frank's thinking Roy's having a daughter could put kinks in the con.  It's anybody's guess who gets away clean when children are involved.
     For such a character centered piece, "Matchstick Men" rolls along at a rat-a-tat speed.  Transitions are snappy, hip, and bold.  The soundtrack is graced with the vocals of Frank Sinatra.  The film's got atmosphere to spare.
     Even though there is a twist in store for the unsuspecting moviegoer, director Ridley Scott and the relatively small cast don't skimp on the acting.  Each character is fleshed out to a tee.  Cage, Rockwell and Lohman form a talented acting troupe.
     Cage, who has returned to characters with quirks in "Adaptation" and now "Matchstick Men," manages to make a utterably likable low-life out of Roy.  Cage once again proves that he is savvy in the art of selling you on a role.  He is forced to go through tics and rituals that might have ringed false if delivered by a lesser actor.  I think it may be the finest role of his career.  I smell Oscar, but that sweet aroma could get lost in the haze of Oscar season.  Hopefully, Academy members have good memories.
     Rockwell, who can play a cocky hipster with considerable panache, plays second fiddle to Cage and Lohman, but he's no slouch.  He manages to steal a number of scenes from Cage's grasp.
     But the real revelation is Lohman, who is still a relative newcomer.  She starred in "White Oleander" to some acclaim, but the spotlight faded when the movie faltered at the box office.  Regardless, she is an amazing actress who brightens up the screen with each smile she stretches across her face.  She's in her twenties in reality, but she plays a fourteen year old so well that you'll never question the movie's reality.  She excels noticeably in her scenes with Cage.  Their report carries the film.
     Director Ridley Scott, best known for his grand dramas and detailed sci-fi extravaganza, is able to come down to a more accessible level.  His shots are expertly laid out, the characters obviously have benifited under his watchful eye, and he wraps it up so perfectly that I may just write him a thank you letter.
     "Matchstick Men" charmed the pants off of me.  I know what you're thinking, "Andrew, how could you have possibly managed to get to your car in the parking lot minus one pair of pants?"  You know, I'm not really sure.  I can almost guarantee you'll leave the theater in a blur similar to mine.

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