Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Matchstick Men

Posted By on Wed, Sep 17, 2003 at 12:00 AM

Con movies customarily darken the screen with a shadowy world where things are not as they seem, a world peopled with a bestiary of professional liars and cheats — con artists, flimflam men, grifters. But Matchstick Men twists these characters out of the darkness and into the light: This is a feel-good crime film where friendship, family and love manage to transcend crime.

Meet Roy Waller (Nicolas Cage), a grifter who’s managed to amass a small fortune (more than a million dollars) from a long career of cons. Despite the ambitions of his protégé, Frank Mercer (Sam Rockwell, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), Roy has settled into the safety of the relatively short con: Roy and Frank telephone scam grandmas by pushing water filtration systems at an 800 percent markup with promises of European dream vacations. Of course, they’re predators — and worse, they prey on the old and weak. But Rockwell’s Frank seems more prankster than criminal while the obsessive-compulsive disorder of Cage’s Roy manufactures an effective sympathy.

When Roy runs out of the medications that help him manage his anxieties and phobias, director Ridley Scott — better known for action fare from Aliens to Black Hawk Down — puts us behind his eyes and ears, exaggerating image, sound and action into cinematic panic: Even an open door becomes a brightly blinding roar of fear threatening the outcome of a con. He enters his home’s obsessively ordered storeroom of cleaning products and embarks on a frenzy of cleaning.

But if Roy is the amplified Felix Unger of their odd couple, Frank is a young Oscar Madison, laid-back and cool as he threatens the order of Roy’s world (or at least his carpet) with a dripping hamburger.

It’s well-known that afflicted characters are Oscar bait. Here, Cage follows up his nominated performance in Adaptation as he channels and concentrates Roy’s anxieties into Tourette’s syndrome-like facial and vocal tics.

Matchstick Men is a movie of twists, and screenwriters Nicholas and Ted Griffin (Ocean’s Eleven) script a major turn when Roy discovers that he has a teenage daughter, Angela (Alison Lohman, White Oleander). He invites her into his life, and she makes a lively and healthy disorder of it. Soon, Roy goes from a constricted diet of canned tuna and cigarettes to throwing spaghetti noodles against the wall to see if they stick.

When Angela discovers Roy’s true occupation, she pleads and wheedles to be schooled in conning. She proves an apt pupil as Matchstick Men swerves into a long, dark con and a bittersweet plot twist that questions the nature of love and family.

Matchstick Men lights up the screen.

James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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