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The trailer to Matchstick Men says it all. It shows Nicolas Cage playing an obsessive-compulsive con man — excuse me, con artist — who develops a healthy, humorous relationship with his daughter. It even explains that “matchstick men” is a synonym for “con men.”

There is more to the movie than what is in the trailer, but as a summary, it’s right on target. The best things about the movie are Cage’s obsessive-compulsiveness, and his relationship with his daughter.

Pictures of Matchstick Men

Cage and Lohman are not quite Ryan and Tatum O'Neal
Cage and Lohman are not quite Ryan and Tatum O’Neal

Cage plays Roy, whose friend and partner is Frank (Sam Rockwell). They share an office from which they troll for suckers. They’ve been in the business long enough to know when to let the little fish off the hook so that they can chase the bigger catch.

Roy is smooth except when he loses control of his environment. When someone opens the door to let the sunlight and germs in, Roy begins to have tics, and his dirt-o-phobia begins to make him uneasy.

When he runs out of medication, he sees a psychiatrist, hoping for a quick prescription. Instead, he gets roped into a little therapy, where we get to see the inner workings of his troubled mind. He tells the doc that he stares at his carpets, paralyzed, obsessing over how dirty they are. And when he thinks about how stupid that is and how helpless he is to change, he wants to blow his brains out, but then he worries what that would do to his carpets.

Mindstorms

Helping us see Roy’s mindstorms are editor Dody Dorn’s (Memento) disorienting jump cuts. Life gets sped up, repeated, and interrupted until our own brains begin to fry like Roy’s.

Roy’s disorder exists mostly to give the movie texture and to give Cage some material that’s not so bland. In fact, once his daughter comes onto the scene, the movie seems to forget about his neuroses. They’re a nice introduction to Roy’s character, but they don’t serve much of a purpose.

Daddy’s Little Girl

Roy has never met his daughter. For the longest time he doesn’t even know he has one. He knew his wife was once pregnant, but she left him before he found out whether the baby was a boy or a girl. With his therapist, Roy decides to face his past.

He arranges a meeting with Angela (Allison Lohman, playing a character a decade younger than herself). It’s awkward, what with Roy’s germophobia and with Angela being a teenage girl, but director Ridley Scott and Cage manage to make it touching as well. Angela gives Roy something to focus on other than his tics.

The movie contrives to have Angela stay with Roy over a weekend, and slowly father and daughter begin to learn about each other. Eventually, she finds out that Roy isn’t really an “antiques dealer.” She figures out he’s a con man, and she wants to learn his trade. The two pull a quick little con together, just for fun. They begin to look like Ryan and Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon.

The movie is a fun little dramatic comedy. The only snag in the tone of the movie comes near the end. The movie turns unnecessarily dark for a few scenes, but screenwriters Nicholas and Ted Griffin find a way out of it and the movie recovers.

Missed Matches

Matchstick Men has some obvious flaws, that are more easily seen from a distance than while you’re in the theater. For one, Cage’s tics seem to disappear once his daughter shows up — not because she’s curing him, but for the expediency of the plot.

In fact, the whole notion of him being obsessive-compulsive is a little bit of an actor’s conceit. It’s something to make his part more memorable without actually adding to the character.

And that dark blip at the end seems out of place in the movie Matchstick Men started out to be, even if the movie does recover.

But these complaints belong more in a critique than in a review. They show that the movie may never become a masterpiece, but they hardly detract from the entertainment. In fact, each flaw reveals a compromise probably made to make Matchstick Men more enjoyable.

Matchstick Men will not replace Paper Moon in the film history books, but it’s a good bit of entertainment.