When an obsessive-compulsive con artist meets his 14-year-old daughter for the first time, it changes his life forever.
Flimflam man, matchstick man, con man--there are all kinds of names for them, but Roy Waller (Nicolas Cage) is a slightly different sort of con artist. He is an obsessive-compulsive agoraphobe whose habits include opening and closing a door three times before walking through it; keeping a house so fastidiously clean it reeks of disinfectant; and displaying so many physical ticks, it's hard for him to carry on a normal conversation. Watching him, you wouldn't dream Roy is a consummate professional, who, along with his partner Frank (Sam Rockwell), has spent years amassing a small fortune doing mostly short con jobs. But Frank is getting restless for a really big score and convinces a reluctant Roy to go in on a difficult job with huge payoff potential. The wrench in the plan, however, is the unexpected arrival of Angela (Alison Lohman), the 14-year-old daughter Roy suspected he had from a doomed relationship 14 years earlier but had never met. She's a precocious, sweet-faced, junk food-eating wild child who proves to be just the spark Roy needs to get past his hangups. This is where the film really takes off, becoming more a character study than a typical who-is-swindling-whom scenario. Roy and Angela bond immediately and when the spunky Angela finds out what Daddy does for a living, she is instantly smitten. In fact, she talks Roy into teaching her some tricks of the trade and takes to it like ''a duck to water.'' The web of deceit eventually gets more and more tangled, as Roy's burgeoning paternal instincts cloud his fine-tuned judgment out in the field--and unfortunately the results are tragic.
It does seem a little odd Cage would decide to take another highly neurotic part after wowing audiences as quirky Charlie Kaufman in last year's Adaptation, for which he earned an Academy Award nomination. One would think he'd want to try something else. The fact remains Cage is really good at playing this type of characters, but with Roy he goes a little over the top, as he races through a pharmacy, twitching, grunting, and making ''whoop!'' sounds while trying to get a prescription filled. Sometimes its funny, sometimes it's forced. When Angela shows up, Roy's quirks become more subtle, as he slowly sheds the neurosis and starts to care about the girl. Fresh-faced Lohman (White Oleander) rises up to the challenge of working with the seasoned likes of Cage and Rockwell and does an outstanding job as the wayward teenager who becomes the bright light at the end of Roy's dark tunnel. The two have an instant connection on screen, and their scenes are what truly give the film its energy, especially when Angela shows how the apple doesn't far from the tree. Accepting the fact she's a natural con artist, she tells Roy, ''Mom was wrong. I didn't just get your elbows.'' Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) was born to play the wisecracking and confident Frank; you get the feeling he could actually be a successful con man if he tried.
For obvious reasons, more than a few comparisons have been made between Matchstick Men and Peter Bogdanovich's 1973 Paper Moon, which follows a con man and his adopted daughter as they swindle their way through the 1930s Dust Bowl. Although Matchstick Men doesn't quite live up to that classic, under the steady guidance of Ridley Scott, the film is still a gem in its own right. Producer/screenwriters Ted Griffin and Sean Bailey turn in a wonderful script full of vivid and interesting characters and the versatile Scott is able to elicit the exact performances needed to make the film come alive. With films ranging from sci-fi (Alien) to epic (Gladiator) to personal (Thelma & Louise), the versatile director consistently is able to create scenes in which the characters don't even have to speak for you to still understand them. And with Matchstick Men, it's clear Scott is slightly in love with Roy and Angela. One of the more poignant scenes is where Roy takes Angela to lunch for the first time at a greasy diner, and as a typical teenager, the girl stuffs a hamburger in her mouth. The neurotic Roy watches his newfound daughter with simultaneous disgust and amazement.
With an excellent cast and expert direction, Matchstick Men just may con you into having a rollicking good time. The bonus is you won't mind being ''taken'' at all.