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Friday, March 6, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 3.0° F  Fair
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Matchstick Men

In Matchstick Men, Nicolas Cage does that thing he does ' takes a character to the far reaches of plausibility and, by believing in the guy with every single fiber of his being, gets us to believe in him, too. It's a con game, when you think about it; we're being had. But what other contemporary actor makes it so pleasurable to suspend our disbelief? In Matchstick Men, Cage actually plays a con artist, although artistry would appear to be the last thing this bundle of nerves (imagine TV's Monk on the wrong side of the law) is capable of. An agoraphobic with obsessive-compulsive disorder, Cage's Ray spends most of his time cleaning the house ' toothbrush on the window locks, that kind of thing. On his good days, he can control it with medication. On his bad days, he'd like to blow his brains out, but then who would clean up the mess?

Things are about to get a lot messier. Convinced by a psychiatrist that his tics are due to an unresolved conflict, Ray allows into his life a 14-year-old daughter whom he's never met. Angela (White Oleander's Alison Lohman, once again holding her own against veteran talent) is the little girl every daddy dreams about, except she's figured out what Ray does for a living within two seconds and convinced him to teach her the trade in three. Thus does Matchstick Men settle into a Paper Moon groove, with shades (rather dark shades) of The Grifters. When Ray and his partner (Sam Rockwell, oozing sleaze) decide to go for a long con, bilking a businessman out of tens of thousands of dollars, Angela gets swept up into the operation, and Ray's torn between the various ways of being a good father. Should he send her back to her mother or use her as the distraction in a classic Jamaican switch?

Except for a major one that I won't reveal, the flimflams in Matchstick Men aren't especially intricate, but it's always fun to watch ordinary people gladly part ways with their hard-earned money, and director Ridley Scott has an eye for scum. He also has a nose for El Lay ' the nostril-clearing stench of chlorine rising from a million swimming pools. With Ray's pristine pool, Scott pays homage to David Hockney's iconic '60s painting "A Bigger Splash," which reduced the Southern California lifestyle to placid pastels, but Scott darkens the palette, preparing us for a noir-ish finale. For Ray, it turns out, is that hoariest of clichÃs, a con with a conscience, which is another word for sap. It's hard to imagine another actor pulling off such a tricky role, but Cage not only brings Ray to herky-jerky life, he shows us what makes him tic.

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