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Cage shines in fresh, quirky film

Rama Gottumukkala | Monday, September 15, 2003

Society has always been fascinated with the trade of con men. Perhaps it is their ability to gain a quick buck solely through the use of their wits, while the rest of us have to earn that same dollar through hard work. But while society may be more intrigued by the exact details of their scams, it is the minds and personalities behind these gifts that really give life to the crimes.

Matchstick Men presents a fresh, lively look at the humorous inner-workings of an unlikely con artist while creating a very memorable protagonist in the process.

In the film, Nicolas Cage plays Roy, a neurotic, obsessive-compulsive con artist who is a wily veteran at the precise art of confidence scams. Backed by his ambitious protégé, Frank (Sam Rockwell), Roy is on the verge of pulling off a lucrative scam when the unexpected arrival of Roy’s estranged teenage daughter, Angela (Alison Lohman), disrupts his carefully ordered life and jeopardizes his high-risk swindle.

There is a scene in Matchstick Men where Roy, the epitome of a neat freak, is explaining to his psychiatrist that he spent last Tuesday watching dust fibers settle on his carpet and worrying that he might vomit because of this. That got Roy to thinking that he should just blow his brains out and end it all. But, thinking more about the matter, he started worrying about what that would do to his “damn carpet.” And according to Roy, that was a good day.

Watching Nicolas Cage bring life to Roy in scenes like these is delightful. He carefully balances the neuroses that plague Roy with the other side of the man – the poised, cunning and experienced con man whose obsession with perfection translates to flawless executions of his scams. This balance makes the performance that much more believable and memorable.

Every twitch of an eyelid and spasm of a muscle that Roy exhibits is amusing. Cage has proven himself again to be one of Hollywood’s most versatile actors, easily handling this complicated comedic role with the same success that has made him a big-budget action star with films like The Rock and Gone in Sixty Seconds, and an Academy Award winner and nominee with Leaving Las Vegas and Adaptation, respectively.

With a different approach, the role of Roy could easily have become either over-the-top or mundane. But Cage adds a sincerity to the role that convinces the audience how frustrating even the simplest tasks are for Roy, while also showing the humor behind the character’s awkward behavior.

While Cage’s performance outshines those of his fellow actors at times, both Sam Rockwell and Alison Lohman also impress in their respective roles. Rockwell, who is an easy-going but very adept con man, provides a much-needed contrast to Roy’s uber-type-A personality. Lohman, who is almost 25 years old in real life, does a wonderful job in conveying the wide-eyed fascination of a 14-year-old with her father’s questionable trade.

If Matchstick Men could be summed up in one word, it would probably be “quirky.” Every aspect of the film gels impressively, from the outlandish directing style of Ridley Scott and the offbeat score composed by Hans Zimmer, down to the very plot and characters, which break the mold set by previous crime capers.

The ending seems forced at first, until you consider that it fits perfectly with the type of film that it resolves – a quirky one. Ultimately, the film concentrates on the characters rather than the scam, which is a pleasant change that, given the obvious talents of the cast, translates impressively to the silver screen.

Contact Rama Gottumukkala at rgottumu@nd.edu