Matchstick Men. Warner Brothers presents a film directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Nicholas and Ted Griffin, based on the novel by Eric Garcia. Running time: 114 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for profanity and violence). StarringNicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell, Alison Lohman, Bruce Altman, Bruce McGill.

Matchstick Men

It has not been very long since Eric Garcia's novel, "Matchstick Men" was published, and already there is a film adaptation. Why? Because, after reading the manuscript of the novel, Nicolas Cage immediately purchased the rights to make a movie out of it. With Ridley Scott signed on as the director, production started almost immediately, and now the movie has been released. It was good timing on Cage's part, too. Matchstick Men is an excellent film, and the first great mainstream movie of the fall.

Matchstick Men has the unenviable task of juggling three separate stories at the same time, and, surprisingly, it pulls it off admirably. These stories are: (1) that of a man who stumbles through life with obsessive/compulsive disorder, agoraphobia, and a whole variety of facial tics, (2) that of the con-man and his protegé, and the con they are attempting to pull off, and (3) a father meeting the teenage daughter he never knew he had. The man in the first story, the con-artist in the second, and the father in the third are all the same man: Roy Waller (Cage). His partner and student is Frank (Sam Rockwell). And his daughter is Angela (Alison Lohman).

After Roy spills his medicine down the sink, he gets particularly bad, and he goes to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Klein (Bruce Altman). At first he is only going to get new medicine, and he does, but the sessions eventually become helpful. Roy reveals that he had been married, and that his ex-wife had been pregnant when she left him. He asks Dr. Klein to get in touch with his ex, and he does. He also finds Roy's lost daughter, Angela, and sets up a meeting between her and Roy. Soon, Angela is living with Roy, and when he takes her out on a con he realizes that she has a knack for that kind of thing. She loves doing it, and Roy loves having her do it.

Matchstick Men is brilliant in the way it handles these separate stories. Each one is given just the perfect amount of time, and it never stays on one for so long that we lose interest before it switches again. The characters are all fully developed, and none of them are either completely good or completely bad; when they do something, it makes sense. And the epilogue, which could have gone terribly wrong, is completely faithful to the characters and to what has come before it. Instead of lessening the experience, it ties up the story and offers an immensely satisfying catharsis.

The movie has more on its mind than just the traditional con, but the one that is there is as well-planned and executed as nearly anything David Mamet has ever put together. And to draw more comparisons to Mamet, the dialogue, especially that between Roy and Frank, is smart, funny, and dazzling. If you haven't already figured it out, I consider Matchstick Men's screenplay to be an Oscar-worthy achievement. Even the seemingly obligatory plot twist is smart, surprising, and oddly poignant.

Ridley Scott, better known as a director of such action films as Alien, Black Hawk Down, and Gladiator, has never made a film like Matchstick Men before. It is light, fast-paced, and, most of all, often really funny. In a lesser movie, the humor would come from exploiting Roy's disorder for laughs. Matchstick Men never sinks to such a low level. Instead, it finds humor in the characters' relationships. And, at the same time, it is often emotionally involving. Roy's relationship with Angela is one of finest, most interesting father-daughter relationships in recent memory.

The cast of Matchstick Men takes one respected veteran and two of the finest up-and-coming actors working today, and it uses them all to the best of their abilities. In my end-of-2002 commentary I remarked that Nicolas Cage had returned to acting (with the brilliant Adaptation), and that I hoped he never left again. Well, he hasn't yet, and for the second year in a row he gives one of the best lead performances of the year. His performance as Roy could have been obnoxious or over-the-top, but it never is, and he shapes the character into a real person with real feelings. Alison Lohman and Sam Rockwell are no less impressive. Lohman could be one of the best teenage actresses working today - except she's not, because she's 23. In Matchstick Men, she is asked to play a character nearly ten years younger than Lohman actually is, and she is never not convincing. Rockwell gives Frank the perfect mix of sarcasm and sincerity to make him a likeable character. Many of the film's laughs come from Rockwell's flamboyant performance.

It is becoming increasingly rare to find a mainstream release like Matchstick Men - one that can deftly combine entertainment and emotional impact into one whole. When a film like this does come along, it is an event to be celebrated and supported - through ticket sales. Go see Matchstick Men. If it makes money, there may be more films like this released in the coming years. And what a nice thing that would be.

© 2003 Matt Noller