LOS ANGELES, Sept. 11 (UPI) -- After a dreary winter of already forgotten misfires and a dry summer of sequels, it's time for grown-ups to go back to the movies. Director Ridley Scott's august reputation is built on five memorable movies -- Alien," "Blade Runner," "Thelma & Louise," "Gladiator," and "Black Hawk Down." "Matchstick Men" isn't his sixth, but it's easily one of the best big studio releases so far in 2003.
After his hangdog performance in the flop "Windtalkers" hopefully ended Nicolas Cage's career as a $20 million-per-blockbuster action star, the actor fired his agent and went back to his strength: playing walking advertisements for the wares of the psychopharmaceutical industry.
Granted, Cage is a bit more mature now than when he ate a live roach in 1989's "Vampire's Kiss" or played the romantic lead in 1986's "Peggy Sue Got Married" while imitating the voice of Pokey, the sidekick of the green rubber toy Gumby.
The "Matchstick Men" script by Ted Griffin ("Ocean's Eleven") and his brother Nick tosses Cage his kind of red meat. Much of the pleasure of con man movies is watching actors switch characters on a dime, but Cage reverses the usual setup by making his false front blander than his real personality, which suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, Tourette Syndrome, agoraphobia, and plain old suicidal depression. (Scott underscores Cage's tics with stutter-step editing.)
Unfortunately for a man in his line of work (swindling the elderly into paying $500 for a $50 water filter), the one thing he's not is an uncaring sociopath. After accidentally knocking his pills down the garbage disposal, Cage spends a week in a germ-phobic OCD frenzy, toothbrushing the undersides of all the furniture in his 1962-style swingin' bachelor pad, where a vinyl Sinatra LP is always playing on the hi-fi. Not that he's had a girl over since his pregnant wife disappeared on him in 1988.
He's finally rescued by his amiable protégé, Sam Rockwell (who energetically played another con man, Chuck Barris, in last year's "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind"), who finds him a new psychiatrist. This shrink is one of those warm movie mensches (like Judd Hirsch in "Ordinary People") who set impossibly high standards of empathy and insight that unscripted psychiatrists can't live up to.
Cage tells him that the only thing that kept him from blowing his brains out was, "I wondered what that would do to my carpet." The psychiatrist quickly deduces that Cage's real problem is his unresolved relationship with the ex-wife. With one quick phone call, he arranges for Cage to meet the 14-year-old daughter he never knew he had, played by Alison Lohman of "White Oleander."
He's entranced by the tiny but spunky junior high student, and awkwardly tries on the humanizing role of Dad. Taking care of her starts him thinking about getting out of the business and into a real job. With a human relationship, his symptoms come more under control. He can't resist, however, showing off to her by letting her in on the secret of the one thing he does well -- cheating people.
Then, Cage discovers that his psychiatrist has been successfully treating him with placebos, because the real cause of his madness is his evil job. His guilt is driving him crazy.
This kind of straightforward moral cause for sickness is common in movies because it's more satisfying than the awful randomness of real diseases. Six years ago, when I almost died of lymphatic cancer at age 38, numerous nonsmokers asked my wife if I smoked, hoping that would turn my unsettling story into a tidy lesson in why I got what I deserved (and they wouldn't). They were rattled to find out I'd never smoked. Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma mostly just happens.
We find it even less acceptable that the brain also simply gets sick now and then. In "A Beautiful Mind," for example, in order to blame John Nash's psychosis on the McCarthy Red Scare, screenwriter Akiva Goldsman moved Nash's breakdown from 1959, when McCarthy was dead and gone, to his heyday in 1953. For this, Goldsman won an Oscar, because we go to movies to see a coherent universe, where cause and effect rules, not the arbitrary hammer blows of the real world.
"Matchstick Men" is poor medical science, but that helps make it a strong story.
Unfortunately, it's reminiscent of three excellent movies from last year that were superior. Cage did self-loathing even better in "Adaptation." In "Punch-Drunk Love," Paul Thomas Anderson out-directed Scott at visualizing borderline insanity. And "Catch Me If You Can" was ultimately a more emotionally engaging con artist movie because it skipped the implausible trick ending that has become mandatory since "The Usual Suspects."
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, violence, some sexual content, and language.