Flim-flam man, trickster, shyster, loser... Matchstick Man. Few `professions' are so mysterious, so magnetic, so damn cool. Never mind that innocent people get fleeced of their life savings - - ""old people, fat people, lonely people"", as Nic Cage's grifter admits in this sleek sleight-of-hander. Well, never mind when it's happening on a cinema screen; in the movies, it's all about the panache, the misdirection, the ingenuity. Let's leave the consequences for real life.
So, in the fine tradition of The Sting, The Grifters and numerous David Mamet movies, Ridley Scott gives us Matchstick Men, a fiendishly clever fraud flick. That he also finds time to give us characters we care about and a subplot with genuine emotional appeal is the neatest trick of all.
Meet Roy (Cage) and his partner/protégé Frank (Sam Rockwell), resourceful swindlers who make several hundred here, a few thousand there. Then they hit on THE BIG ONE: a startlingly simple scam-plan to diddle import/export schmuck Frechette (Bruce McGill) out of $80,000.
So far, so join-the-dots, right? Sure, until you consider that Roy's an obsessive-compulsive who can't step out his own front door until he takes his medication. That he's just started seeing a new shrink (Bruce Altman) who won't even give him said medication unless he spends an hour a week on the couch, confronting his phobias. And that he's just found out he has a 14-year-old daughter, Angela (Alison Lohman), born seven months after his wife walked out.
What follows is a film confidently balanced on the edge of an ace of spades, rarely wobbling as it walks the fine line between exhilarating con artist pic and touching family drama. Catch Me If You Can tried it, Matchstick Men does it, Scott exhibiting none of Spielberg's digits-down-the-gullet schmaltz. This movie's too busy being pacy, tense, breezy, funny and downright cunning to have time for anything as ponderous as overwrought sentiment. Thank God.
Of course, it helps when your leads are as talented as the fresh-faced Lohman and Nic Cage, an actor who can play socially awkward, tic-ridden misfits with his eyes shut. Which, to be honest, he almost does here, his twitchy-eye-and-involuntary-chimpanzee-grunts routine gamboling along the very parameter of `character acting'. An inch more and it would have tumbled into the land of histrionics.
But back to the "pacy, breezy" bit. DoP John Mathieson's sun-kissed cinematography gives LA an irresistible glow; the soundtrack's comprised of Sinatra classics and a jaunty, sea-breeze score courtesy of Scott regular Hans Zimmer; and jump cuts and wipes give the action a jazzy backbeat, meaning these Matchstick Men dance with a snap in their fingers and a click in their heels. Okay, prod too hard and this elaborate house of cards begins to spill, but by then you'll be long into the night, the cinema far behind you.
Not sold yet? Then you're a sucker, a fish in the barrel ready for shooting.