Matchstick Men

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The men referred to in the title of “Matchstick Men” are two con artists, Roy (Nicolas Cage) and Frank (Sam Rockwell). They live in the artificial city of Los Angeles, have a number of artificial identities, and use small-time fictions to scam average people out of their money. Frank even wears a clip-on tie; nothing about these guys, it seems, is real.

But Roy, whose story this really is, is plagued with psychological problems. He’s obsessive-compulsive and beset with tics and twitches. New medication from his new psychologist Dr. Klein (Bruce Altman) is helping, but stressful situations set him back again, not the least of which is the sudden appearance of a daughter he never knew he had, 14-year-old Angela (Alison Lohman).

Angela’s mom left Roy when she was two months pregnant; until now, Roy didn’t know what happened. He tries to hide his work from Angela, unsuccessfully; it is hard to keep anything from a crying child, especially one who just wants to get to know her daddy better.

Inevitably, Roy teaches Angela a con, and she takes to it like a duck to water. They get along. They like each other. Roy starts to overcome his problems. A life of conning is good.

This cannot last, of course, and just when you think the film has no place to go, it finds someplace to go. It’s a con caper, a heart-warming family drama, and a gut-wrenching comedy, all at once. Angela revitalizes Roy, changes his life — not in the generic way long-lost movie daughters revitalize their movie fathers, but in a way that feels much more genuine. Eventually, her presence in his life leads to developments we would not have suspected, suggesting that whatever you think this movie is, it is probably something else.

Sam Rockwell is always a welcome presence, no less so here as the free-wheeling Frank. And Alison Lohman holds her own as Ray’s precocious daughter.

Nicolas Cage, fresh off two fantastic performances in “Adaptation,” gives some more of his best work here. His portrayal of a difficult, troubled man is honest and non-caricatured. Roy is a character who often cannot act and can only be acted upon. Cage conveys this with appropriate frustration, humor and conviction.

The film is directed with great amusing quirkiness by Ridley Scott, who is better known for his large-scale films like “Gladiator” and “Black Hawk Down.” Smaller, character-driven work like this isn’t his usual style, but he handles it like it a pro. Of course, when some unexpected action occurs midway through the picture, you can feel Scott really getting down to business, like he’s been quietly waiting for that moment all along. You’ll realize you’ve been waiting for it, too.

B+ (1 hr., 56 min.; PG-13, some profanity, one F-word, a little violence, brief partial nudity.)

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