‘Matchstick Men’ plays with cinematic fire, letting its characters loose as sparks fly

In the opening credits of “Matchstick Men,” the camera pans across downtown Los Angeles, the view shrouded by the haze of smog, while in the background Bobby Darin croons “The good life, full of fun, seems to be ideal/ Oh the good life, lets you hide all the sadness you feel.” And indeed, this is a fitting song with which to introduce Roy Watler, the protagonist of “Matchstick Men,” a film directed by Ridley Scott and based on the Eric Garcia novel of the same name.

On a good day, Roy (Nicholas Cage) is a small-time con artist, executing elaborate but unambitious schemes with his partner and protégé, Frank (Sam Rockwell). On a bad day, he is a slave to his obsessive compulsive disorder, which manifests itself in bizarre symptoms, like the need to open, close and lock windows and doors three times. Dependent upon pills to control his compulsions, Roy nonetheless finds his excessively ordered professional life threatened by his private disorder. Early in the film, he almost gives himself away on the job after his victim fails to close a sliding door, setting off his compulsion to shut it and leaving him writhing in his seat to restrain himself. When Roy accidentally knocks his pills down the drain of the kitchen sink, he spends the rest of the week disinfecting his house. An agoraphobe, Roy evidently has no real friends; his last romantic relationship ended 14 years prior to the start of the film.

Roy’s OCD creates many comic opportunities and Scott exploits them generously. During one of his panic attacks, Roy takes deep breathes into a paper bag in between scolding Frank for wearing shoes on the carpet and handling the phone after finishing a hamburger. Cage also seems to have a lot of fun with his character. Adept at the physical demands – the twitching, jerking, and cringing – Cage also brings out Roy’s personality in long monologues. In his first visit to his psychiatrist, Dr. Klein (Bruce Altman), Roy flips out in a fit of cynicism and spastics, creating an especially memorable episode.

Enter Alison Lohman as Roy’s long-lost daughter, Angela, whose existence Roy has always suspected but never confirmed. Roy contacts his ex-wife through Dr. Klein, and, while the former Mrs. Watler refuses to have anything to do with him, Angela is anxious to meet her father. Scott cast Lohman, 25, in the role of 14-year-old Angela after seeing her in last year’s “White Oleander.” As Astrid, a troubled foster child, Lohman stole the show from film veterans Michelle Pfeiffer, Renée Zellweger and Robin Wright Penn. Angela is likeable because she is not only unembarrassed by her father’s odd mannerisms, but also seems to enjoy them in the same way that one enjoys a distinctive laugh.

Unfortunately, Angela’s plausibility as a character ends there – Lohman, who has built her career on playing adolescent girls, fails to deliver the same impeccable performance she gave in “White Oleander.” Angela’s youth is intended as a stark contrast to Roy’s moods. She is trusting, eager, carefree, and full of hope and energy – traits that both highlight and complement Roy’s depression, cynicism, jitteriness and anxiety. But Lohman is too obvious and exaggerated. She squeals lines and is constantly in motion, whether wildly gesticulating or bouncing up and down with pleasure. Lohman often slips into the same intonation as that of Alyson Hannigan in “American Pie:” “And this one time, at band camp. . .” Lohman means to demonstrate that Angela is (cringe) spunky, peppy, perky and cute, but instead she is two-dimensional and unbearably annoying.

Soon after the introduction of Angela, the plot of “Matchstick Men” becomes all too predictable. Angela crashes at her father’s, spreading her clothes, teen magazines and dirty dishes throughout the spotless house, much to the consternation of Roy.

As the strict order of his life comes crashing down, Roy must juggle the heightened demands of his first big scam and keep his profession a secret from his daughter. However, before “Matchstick Men” has a chance to take advantage of the inherent comedy of a potentially explosive situation, Roy falls in love with his new role as father-figure and role model.

Fortunately, excellent acting and direction keep “Matchstick Men” from devolving into a feel-good film. Cage has found the subtlety he altogether lacked in 2000’s “The Family Man,” and Beth Grant (best known as Kitty Farmer in 2002’s “Donnie Darko”) offers up a great performance as the sympathetic victim of a father-daughter scam. Scott knows enough not to meditate on Roy’s growing affection, instead allowing only glimpses. For example, Roy glowing as he watches Angela eat pizza. He has the good sense to make “Matchstick Men” a film about Roy – his complexities and personal growth – rather than focus attention on the secondary theme of family.

“Matchstick Men” nearly succumbs to tired plot twists in the final scenes, narrowly avoiding ruin. However, the ending is so well constructed, so grounded in the previously demonstrated psyche of the characters, that the impression of resolution and repose is sustained.