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The Pros of Cons

Sir Ridley Scott crafts a compelling and complex comic-drama that cleverly manipulates the audience.

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As the confidence trickster and unknowing father Roy, Nicolas Cage goes large with his characterization, giving us a small-time operator riddled with neuroses and obsessions concerning personal hygiene and open spaces. Roy bags up each item of garbage individually, cleans incessantly and refuses entry to any guest unwilling to shed their shoes at his front door. And for once, Cage’s trademark actorly tics work for the film rather than against it.

This film is adapted from Eric Garcia’s novel by Nicholas Griffin and in it nothing is what it seems in this slippery film. Shifting gears, tone and genres with incredible ease, “Matchstick Men” is slick, hip and appealing. Convinced by his protege Frank (Sam Rockwell) to see a psychoanalyst (Bruce Altman), Roy is encouraged to find out if a former girlfriend he split from while she was pregnant actually bore him a child. It turns out that she did, and before you know it, his 14-year-old daughter Angela (Alison Lohman) is on his doorstep. The unlikely pair begin bonding and Roy reluctantly ends up showing her the tricks of his trade. “You don’t seem like a bad guy,” she says. “That’s what makes me good at it,” he replies. All the while, Frank is setting up a lucrative con, with greedy businessman Frechette (Bruce McGill) as their mark. But Roy — now smitten with his new-found kin — begins to think twice about going through with the con.

Cage, who juggled two diametrically different personalities in his Oscar-nominated turn in “Adaptation,” is equally virtuosic here, fully inhabiting Roy’s anxiety-ridden world yet making a persuasive transition to adoring father. Cage never condescends to the character, which makes his blossoming into a more grounded human being that much more believable. Lohman, who won acclaim in last year’s “White Oleander,” is extraordinarily natural as the uninhibited, vulnerable Angela, and her rapport with Cage anchors the film. Rockwell, who starred as crazed TV producer Chuck Barris in last year’s “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” again proves himself one of the liveliest supporting players around; he’s so slick and smooth as Roy’s fellow grifter, one can’t help but wonder just how trustworthy he could possibly be in real life.

Scott, who has given us the spectacle of movies such as “Blade Runner” and “Gladiator,” is back in the more intimate “Thelma & Louise” mode, but always lends a surplus of energy to whatever he tackles. Here, he jumps at the creative challenge of visually conveying Roy’s panic and disorientation, using jump-cuts, fast motion, and skewed, subjective perspectives.

Although twist endings are a dime a dozen nowadays, the movie’s final clincher is unique because it makes predictability part of its master fraud. It’s funny, sad, thoughtful and surprising, but the greatest con “Matchstick Men” pulls off is manipulating viewers into believing they know exactly what the movie’s about. **** S

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