On Fire

Award-worthy performances make 'Matchstick Men' a film to see.

OK, so it's pretty easy to guess the big surprise that's supposed to blow your ass out the back of the theater in Matchstick Men.

So what? Getting to that surprise is a treat, thanks to another great performance from Nicolas Cage, who follows up last year's Adaptation with another big winner.

Based on the novel by Eric Garcia, Matchstick Men tells the story of Roy, a con man suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. His illness has him refusing to go through doors unless he opens them three times, cleaning all surfaces constantly and exhibiting an array of grunts and twitches that are at once funny and sad. Cage is that rare actor who can portray somebody with mental illness while not turning that portrayal into caricature (Sean Penn's overblown, "You're my lawyer!" performance in I Am Sam was an extreme example of how not to portray disabilities).

Roy is bilking elderly people out of a few hundred bucks at a time with small-scale schemes involving water purification systems, but he and his partner, Frank (the always excellent Sam Rockwell), are working up to a big score. In walks a surprise in the form of Angela (Alison Lohman), the 14-year-old daughter Roy has never seen. This sets the stage for a sort of Ryan and Tatum O'Neal, Paper Moon kind of relationship that has father teaching daughter the ways of the con. Cage and Lohman have a palpable father-daughter dynamic, and the instances when Roy cracks under pressure and attempts to shun Angela are painful and heartbreaking stuff.

There are some big twists, but none that will throw too many for a loop. This is a film where it is good to relax a bit and not attempt to solve all of the mysteries before secrets are revealed. Doing that just ruins some of the fun. Still, if you should find yourself correctly guessing the ending, have a good time trying to catch all the hints and foreshadows that lead to the finale.

Coming off big-budget action films such as Gladiator, Hannibal and Black Hawk Down, director Ridley Scott shows he knows his way around a smaller-scaled ensemble work. The film looks spectacular, as Scott's films always do. If he missteps anywhere, it's the strange epilogue that attempts to make the movie an uplifting, happy experience. Not to give anything away, but the last few minutes of the movie feel wholly inappropriate.

Lohman, who will turn 24 on the day this review publishes, is incredible playing an adolescent 10 years younger than her actual age. She will have many thinking that her turn as Angela is the best child performance of the year--that is, until they check her bio and discover she's all grown up. What she does is worthy of year-end awards consideration, because she will undoubtedly dupe many who witness her work. I can't think of anybody roundabout 14 who could've done a better job at playing 14.

Coming off last year's breakthrough role as Chuck Barris in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Rockwell is perfection as the shifty Frank. Constantly reminding his twitchy partner to take his pills and reacting in disgust when Roy takes his daughter along for criminal participations, Frank is yet another memorable role for one of the world's better actors.

Of course, this is principally a Nicolas Cage film, and it is his work that resonates the most. His co-stars are equally up to the task, making Matchstick Men one of the better ensemble films of the year thus far.

Keep an eye on Lohman's career. After this and her performance in last year's White Oleander, it's a fair bet that she will become a huge star. It's also a fair bet that she gets carded every time she hits the clubs.

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