In Matchstick Men, father meets daughter and sets a paper moon ablaze.

Con Heir 

In Matchstick Men, father meets daughter and sets a paper moon ablaze.

When Nicolas Cage plays still and sullen -- a man possessed by self-loathing and melancholy in Adaptation, say, or the landlocked angel in City of Angels -- he comes off as drowsy. Cage has excelled in hyperactive parts that allow him to gesticulate spastically and detonate like a bomb.

The part of Roy in Ridley Scott's Matchstick Men is ideal for Cage: He's a chain-smoking collage of nervous tics, obsessive-compulsive habits and intemperate outbursts, and he's especially frustrated by his inability to function without his doctor's magic pills. It's hard to be a con man -- rather, a con artist, as he says with pride -- when you're more concerned with a spilled beverage than with the swindle being played out.

Among Roy's most exasperating traits is the uncontrollable twitch in his left eye; it looks as though he's always winking at someone, giving something away. It's a perfect mannerism for a movie about putting one over on someone who should know better -- the audience, in this case, given that anyone going into a movie populated by grifters should know well in advance that what lies ahead is a double-double-cross. The joy in watching a film like this one is seeing how capably it's pulled off. Roy is just reminding the audience to keep alert for the long haul.

Scott seems relieved not to be burdened by gladiators, serial killers and crashed helicopters. This is his most intimate, human picture since Thelma and Louise, a movie about relationships in which people aren't killed but rather just crushed a little by the seedy lives they've chosen. Scott has fun, at least until his clever grin gives way to the unnecessary sweet smile.

Roy plays mentor to partner Frank (Sam Rockwell), the more voluble and ambitious of the two. Rockwell is still channeling Chuck Barris, still moving to a bebop soundtrack no one else hears. Gumming up their relationship is Angela (Alison Lohman), who shows up one afternoon claiming to be Roy's fourteen-year-old daughter, the sole remaining proof he was once married and capable of relationships that didn't involve swindling people. Then there are the ancillary characters -- Dr. Klein (Bruce Altman), Roy's new therapist; moneyman Chuck Frenchette (Bruce McGill), plotting his own scheme -- who become key players in the search for a big score.

Eric Garcia's 2002 novel played like a hipper, flipper Paper Moon: Roy's never so happy or calm as when teaching Angela how to take suckers for $300 or $30,000. Roy has no idea how to be a father but feels inexplicable pride when he discovers this little girl's a great grifter. When Angela's around, Roy even stops twitching and obsessing. And Angela seems genuinely happy to have a long-lost dad. (Lohman plays her as all smiles and affectionate kisses, a skateboarding Kewpie doll in need of some fatherly attention.)

But screenwriters Ted and Nicholas Griffin have softened Roy, made him more likable for a movie audience: His cons are less callous, and his ticks are the result of repressed guilt over his chosen profession. He even makes Angela give the money back to a woman they've taken in a laundry. They've also added a love interest the book never suggested, Sheila Kelley as a woman working the checkout counter at the grocery store where Roy buys only cans of tuna and packs of smokes.

That's where the movie falters: It tries to give Garcia's book a heart and conscience it doesn't need. Scott finally comes off as someone too guilty to have a good time. He seems to believe there has to be meaning to the swindle, but sometimes all we want is to have our pockets picked.

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