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Movie Review

Matchstick Men

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Directed by Ridley Scott, starring Nicolas Cage, Alison Lohman, Sam Rockwell, Bruce Altman and Bruce McGill.

From futuristic thrillers ('Blade Runner') and period epics ('Gladiator') to gung-ho war movies ('Black Hawk Down'), Ridley Scott has done big bangs with big bucks. Now he's back, as slick as ever but eschewing the mega budgets and special effects for intelligent, character-driven, three-hander 'Matchstick Men'.

Nicolas Cage stars as neurotic but brilliant con man Roy. His ambitious partner and protégé Frank (Rockwell) wants to go bigger but Roy's phobias - open spaces, dirt, air, to name but a few - are affecting his work. He visits a psychoanalyst (Altman) to get more pills but ends up with more than he bargained for when part of his therapy involves getting in contact with the 14-year-old daughter he's never met. An obsessive-compulsive bundle of nervous tics and twitches, Ray finds life for one hard enough to deal with without being a Dad as well but Angela (Lohman) erupts into his world with such spontaneous joie de vivre that he finds himself pulled helplessly along in her wake.

When Angela comes to stay she brings chaos, Dominos and teenage angst to Roy's sterile apartment and ordered existence. Although he initially tells her that he's an antiques dealer, it's not long before the street-wise Angela cops on to Daddy's gig and wants to come along for the ride. Roy is torn between fatherly pride and consternation at how quickly she picks up the tricks of his trade. While Roy becomes increasingly preoccupied with Angela, Frank is distrustful of the newcomer and Roy is eventually forced into making a choice between his daughter and his hustles.

Cage convincingly twitches, hoots and obsesses through innumerable daily routines as lonely grifter Roy and his hesitant but willing opening up to life under the tutelage of a teenager is both moving and funny. There's a wonderful scene in the psychoanalyst's office when Roy wrestles with a mixture of emotions, from pride and joy to guilt and horror, after showing Angela how to con.

Although she was 24 when 'Matchstick Men' was shot, the talented Alison Lohman is effortlessly believable as a bubbly but mixed up 14-year-old. Cute and natural, she wrings the heart of her father and, by extension, the audience, although at times she's almost too unselfconscious to be a regular teenager. Sam Rockwell is watchable as ever, an unredeemed slob to Cage's meticulous Roy, charming and dodging his way through the day but always with one anxious eye out for the big job.

Ridley Scott proves that he can use a small palate just as effectively as a large one. His stylish direction covers up the occasional plot hole and a well-chosen soundtrack of lounge songs, including a perfect moment with George Formby's 'Leaning on a Lamp Post', makes things move with a swing. There are better scam movies out there but, although it descends to schmaltzy feel-good sentimentality in the final reel, 'Matchstick Men' is a classy and curiously touching con job.

Caroline Hennessy

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