A self-consciously modest film from an immodestly talented director, Ridley Scott's "Matchstick Men" comes equipped with a major star (Nicolas Cage), a ripe second banana (Sam Rockwell) and the regulation pretty face (Alison Lohman).
The script was co-written by Ted Griffin, who hatched Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's Eleven" and like the earlier film hinges on some likable grifters after a serious score. It has the sort of cheerfully amoral characters and zigzag plotting that should make it float, but in contrast to the Soderbergh, it merely drifts.
A natural-born filmmaker, Scott has a visual style that in its balance of pointillist detail and sweeping scale can complement whatever large-scale story he's chewed off or prove the principal salvation of weak material.
Equally important, the director has the confidence — or naïve faith — in his ability to tackle difficult, unwieldy, seemingly impossible subjects. He's one of the few filmmakers working in Hollywood who can see into the future, as he did in "Blade Runner," and also seem right home in a Roman coliseum, as he did in "Gladiator." Unlike Soderbergh, Scott didn't need to learn epic; unlike the younger director, however, he may be incapable of doing anything else. Which is one reason why "Matchstick Men" feels like a divertissement, a minor interlude between Scott's usual major endeavors.
In the film, Cage plays Roy, a con man who calls himself a con artist, possibly as a hedge against feeling bad about his profession. Plagued with obsessive-compulsive disorder — a clean-and-tidy freak, he manually smoothes every errant carpet fiber — Roy inhabits a body that often seems on the verge of betraying him.
He ejects streams of nervous "mm-hmms" and opens and closes doors exactly three times, counting off as he does so. He also has a problem with light. When in the middle of a con he's accidentally flooded with sunlight, his face spasmodically erupts in tics, eyelids shuttering rapidly and nearly blowing the deal. He and his partner, Frank (a suitably unctuous Rockwell), are doing a fine business cleaning out bank accounts, but Roy's a mess.
Giving the tic-happy Cage license to squint, rattle and hum is risky, but despite all of the Tourette's-like bits of business that come with the character, this registers as one of the actor's more tamped-down performances. Roy is a sympathetic rogue, but for the most part, he isn't overly sentimentalized. Cage has a habit of overselling his characters (he works his feathery long eyelashes as hard as any silent-screen vamp), but either the actor or Scott has put a restraining order on his histrionics. That's something of a relief, but because there isn't much to the character it's also a bit dull. Mostly, though, it's a surprise given that the main focus in "Matchstick Men" isn't the con the swindlers unleash on a millionaire (Bruce McGill) but the potentially gooey relationship between Roy and his newly discovered 14-year-old daughter, Angela (Lohman).
As a caper movie, "Matchstick Men" tools along pleasantly if unremarkably. There isn't much guesswork needed to figure out what's really going on, which makes you wonder what you're supposed to be thinking about if not the plot's ostensible twists upon twists. Cage, of course, is fun to watch even when his character isn't, as is Rockwell, who makes your skin crawl much as he did in "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind." It's always a delight to see McGill in action, and Lohman, who shares some nice quiet moments with Cage, inhabits her teenage character with tender persuasiveness. Indeed, everything in "Matchstick Men" moves and looks right, from John Mathieson's cinematography to Tom Foden's production design, so it's puzzling that the film fizzles rather than fizzes.
One hallmark of Scott's work is the ease with which he puts over far-fetched stories; another is that he doesn't especially seem to like or need happy endings. His characters are intense, fierce, determined — just like his direction. In almost every film from "The Duellists" on, he has brought an unshakable conviction to his work, and he's backed that conviction with a visual style that's as overpowering and unrelenting as Phil Spector's famous wall of sound. This is, after all, the director who almost, almost, turned Demi Moore into a believable Navy SEAL in "G.I. Jane," one of the more outrageous leaps of faith proposed by a filmmaker in recent memory.
Yet with "Matchstick Men," Scott seems uncharacteristically diffident, almost bored, which may be why he doesn't try to dazzle us. Maybe the story's too small, the characters overly familiar. There are, after all, glimmers of other con jobs in the movie, other father-daughter tears. One of the pleasures of "Ocean's Eleven" was watching Soderbergh counter the weightlessness of his film with sharpened technique. Soderbergh could already shoot, but with "Ocean's Eleven" he learned how to drive the sort of big machine Scott has piloted for years. For a filmmaker of Scott's ambition and reach, the return to Earth — where the heroes are named Roy, the stakes are low and the light never shimmers as brilliantly as it does in a Ridley Scott movie — may not only be impossible, it may finally be unwelcome.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for thematic elements, violence, some sexual content and language.
Times guidelines: Some mild violence and gunplay; adult language; bad parenting.
Nicolas Cage ... Roy
Sam Rockwell ... Frank
Alison Lohman ... Angela
Bruce Altman ... Dr. Klein
Bruce McGill ... Chuck Frechette
Warner Bros. Pictures presents an Imagemovers/Scott Free production, in association with Rickshaw Productions and LivePlanet, released by Warner Bros. Director Ridley Scott. Writers Nicholas Griffin, Ted Griffin. Based on the book by Eric Garcia. Producers Jack Rapke, Ridley Scott, Steve Starkey, Sean Bailey, Ted Griffin. Director of photography John Mathieson. Production designer Tom Foden. Editor Dody Dorn. Composer Hans Zimmer. Running time: 2 hours.
In general release.