Matchstick Men
a film by Ridley Scott
from a screenplay by Nicholas and Ted Griffin
adapted from the novel by Eric Garcia

The new film from Ridley Scott is a slick, fast-paced, genre piece that has a lot to recommend it, but in the end outwits its own intentions.

Scott - whose career defines the adjective "checkered" (on the one hand, Blade Runner, Alien and Blackhawk Down, on the other Hannibal and GI Jane) - here delivers a visually (and musically) stylish film that falters on an overly contrived screenplay, and some directorial lapses.

The genre is the "caper" film - a clever rollercoaster-ride of plots, schemes and double-crosses that sets the protagonist a Herculean task, surrounds it with pitfalls of all sorts, and compounds the difficulty with uncertainties about the loyalty, honesty and competence of the characters that surround him - and even his own.

Roy Waller (Nic Cage) is professional con-man with a serious obsessive-compulsive problem. He and his partner and protege Frank Mercer (Sam Rockwell) are small-time crooks who have to work pretty hard to make ends meet with their penny-ante swindles, but through perseverance, caution and a solid work ethic, Roy has managed to put aside a considerable nest egg.

Confronted, however, with the emptiness of his life, Roy seeks to connect with the man he used to be, which leads to the discovery of a child - a daughter, Angela (Alison Lohman) - he was never quite sure he had. She becomes both the inspiration of, and a complication to his plan to make "one last big score" and change his life.

At best, there is a cleverness and pace to such films that can make them highly entertaining. With interesting characters, often exotic locations, and a mixture of humor and suspense, they can have enough variety and panache to carry an audience happily along.

The key is an unflagging pace - a building of the rhythm and energy of the film that never gives the audience enough time to reflect at any length on the unresolved complications of the plot, or become distractingly concerned with the "inner lives" of the characters. And this is where Matchstick Men derails.

The screenplay can't make up its mind what it wants to be. The best caper films - like The Lavender Hill Mob, Ocean's Eleven, Topkapi, The Usual Suspects or The Spanish Prisoner are careful not to get too sentimental about their characters. Although character exposition and "development" is central to these stories - it is not at the focus. This is important, as it keeps this aspect of the movie from being labored and obvious and allows the plot-driven rhythm to dominate.

But the writers of Matchstick Men can't seem to decide whether it is a story about events - a real "caper flick" - or a character study about guilt and redemption (think: The Grifters, or even Cage's Leaving Las Vegas). As a result, it falls unsatisfyingly between the two stools.

The glibness of the "plot-driven" events (and the many huge holes in the plot) undermine any deep sympathy for the characters and their predicament. Meanwhile the sentimentality - and especially the gag-me-with-a-serving-spoon-of-treacle ending - undermines the action and suspense of the "caper" plot (and the huge plot holes don't help any here, either).

The attempt to insert a "twist" into the plot comes across as quite contrived. Having been "had" by this device, the audience feels understandably cheated in thinking back over the film to see how deliberately and dishonestly they were misled and manipulated. This kind of "trick ending" is very difficult to pull off. The fact that it does not work very well here really detracts from any kind of satisfying experience.

Scott does a fine job with many aspects of the material, but he stumbles over this basic inconstancy in the story as written. He simply wasn't able to pare down the extraneous plot lines - Roy's relationship with his ex-wife, for instance - to the point where they served the narrative without deflecting or dragging on it.

His other major slip is in allowing an insufficiently restrained performance by Cage. This must have been a tough call for Scott. Cage has moments of pure genius - but can't seem to get the hang of "less is more" - which Scott should have helped him with - it being basically the director's responsibility.

Given the enormous fun of Cage's exploration of the visual and physical aspects of the character's obsessive-compulsive neurosis (much more sympathetic than Jack Nicholson's in As Good As It Gets) I can see where Scott might have had trouble crying "Hold! Enough." But that is the line that the director must draw - sometimes great scenes and great business have to end up on the cutting-room floor because they don't serve the film.

Alison Lohman - who plays Roy's pre-natally-abandoned daughter, Angela - is super - a very talented actress whose sense of "acting" and artificiality in a few moments (the jumping up and down "my dad is super" thing seems like a parody of teen enthusiasm) actually plays to the eventual "twist."

Her ability to play up and down the age range is the best thing I've seen in that line since the Nic Cage-Kathleen Turner Peggy Sue Got Married. She does a fine job of creating essentially two characters - both of whom manage to be sympathetic for quite different reasons.

This film essentially belongs to Lohman and Cage - their developing relationship is the most interesting and appealing thing about it (aside from the unsatisfying unfolding confidence schemes). Cage is an established talent who has carried a number of films all by himself - and been nominated for two Academy Awards, one of which he won. It is much to Lohman's credit that she goes toe-to-toe with him, and actually comes off slightly better - she doesn't have the "star-power" to over-reach the way Cage does here.

Sam Rockwell is effective as Frank, in a role that unfortunately undermines his good work with writing that betrays the character. Rockwell's solidity serves as an effective foil for Cage's unpredictability, and his twisted sense of loyalty and admiration for Cage is one of the most engaging and provocative dynamics in the film - until it is sacrificed for the sake of the plot twist.

The music and sets - particularly Roy's house, and especially his pantry full of cleaning supplies - speak volumes that add a whole level of interest to the film. The world in which Roy and Frank operate - the world of cheap roadside restaurants, mass-produced, middle-class neighborhoods and airport waiting areas - is a "nowhere" that reflects the absence of a sense of place and connection that is central to Roy's self-deception.

Scott is a master with the camera. The framing and editing are dynamic and intriguing. The camera's perspective changes with the situation, from dispassionate observer to third-person participant to first-person point-of-view in a way that is engaging and seductive. He draws the viewer in visually and viscerally - but unfortunately the lack of logical and emotional continuity in the script mostly nullifies these efforts.

At the end, what we are left with is quite a comely mess - like a person with too much cosmetic surgery, who may look good in photos, but is painfully jarring in person - the seventy-year-old with drum-taut skin, a molded figure and bee-stung lips or the over-inflated hero with the face of a pencil-necked geek and a Kirk Douglas chin.

Sometimes "too much" is "just right," and sometimes it is not. Some times it is just "too much" - and this is one of these times.

But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.z