Less is more, though unfortunately not where Nicolas Cage is concerned, this time in "Matchstick Men," where he shows us more tics than you'll find in any three cases of Tourette's. He is Roy, a con man, working telephone scams with his partner Frankie - Sam Rockwell in sleazy Chuck Barris mode - until two potentially life-changing things happen. First, his long-lost daughter, 14-year-old Angela (Alison Lohman) shows up in his life; and second, he and Frankie come upon a mark for the very biggest con of their lives, one that will allow Roy finally to retire.
The story is impeccably plotted, with the kind of meticulous step-by-step structure that only well-trained screenwriters could devise, in this case Nicholas and Ted Griffin, working from a novel by Eric Garcia. It's that kind of 'when I look back on it from the end everything falls into place' film. The director is Ridley Scott, evidently taking a breather from his megahits - his last three were "Black Hawk Down," "Hannibal" and "Gladiator" - and he has done a good job of limiting his palette to a believable L.A.
Cage's tics aside, there's a lot to like in this film. The most successful is Roy's burgeoning relationship with Angela, in which he learns how to be a father to a teenager. He even goes to a psychiatrist (Bruce Altman), first for medication to control his tics, but then to confront his new responsibilities as a parent. And Lohman is brilliant in her role. Where in "White Oleander" she played sullen and hidden, here she is the essence of ebullient teenager. Though the actress is now 24 years old(!), she uses her short size and thin voice to convince us in every way that she is fourteen. The growth of the father-daughter relationship is a pleasure to watch. I should add that part of the pleasure is seeing Angela's delight at taking part in her father's work; she is a natural at it.
The big con itself is a bit messier, though. We're never quite let in on it enough to understand the mechanics, and in executing a con it's essential that the audience know how it works and what it's watching. We are, after all, the ones being conned, as every filmmaker cons every audience into believing in his or her work; and if we're going to go along with it the con-makers - in this case the writers - must take us into their confidence, so to speak. The pleasure of the con is that it gives the audience both the thrill of the crime and the safety of the moral high ground - we're only watching, after all. Nevertheless Scott is skillful enough to hide the flaws while the con is played out, and we are happy to become silent partners in the scam.
To come back to Cage for a moment, in all his roles he is the kind of everyman-actor we want to respond to; but somehow he manages in each of them to go just that little bit too far over the top to let us relax with him, to settle us as, say, Tom Hanks does, into the palm of his hand. Here, as Roy, he is both Tourette's and obsessive-compulsive. Well, you can be one or the other but it strains credulity to be both. And he is never without a cigarette; he plays as though he has an eight-pack-a-day habit. It is first annoying and then absurd. He is most believable only in the scenes with Lohman, which are, at last, good enough to carry the day.