Matchstick

Tim Cigelske

The slam-bang surprise ending helps, but the story until that point limps along with stabs at cheap sentimentality and bad jokes that barely make it worthwhile.

Based on the novel by Eric Garcia, the plot centers on Roy (Cage), a no-nonsense con artist whose only weakness is his neurosis. Cage tries with mixed results to portray Roy as a cross between his hard-hitting, slick characters (“Snake Eyes,” “Gone In 60 Seconds”) and his introspective, haunted characters (“Bringing Out the Dead,” “Adaptation”).

Sam Rockwell plays Roy’s high-rolling, wisecracking sidekick Frank. The partners scam old people out of a few hundred bucks a pop until Cage knocks his medication into the garbage disposal and spirals into chain-smoking cigarettes and excessive house-cleaning. Rockwell’s goading eventually leads him back to a doctor for new medicine and into a big-time score.

The-crook-and-the-shrink routine became an overused plot devise long before “Analyze That,” but it does provide an opportunity to reveal part of Cage’s past and sets up the reunion with the daughter he never knew he had.

Unfortunately, Cage’s struggle to relate to beer-swillin’, skateboardin’, junkfood lovin’ teen rebel Angela (Alison Lohman) makes up a good portion of the movie. In a melodramatic arc repeated in countless kids’ movies, Cage morphs from the workaholic parent totally unable to relate to his daughter, to the reluctant father figure, to the adoring dad who learns to loosen up and share breakfasts of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream with his daughter.

Meanwhile, the heist is back on and Angela gets pulled in this time, thus setting up the entertaining conclusion.

The movie suffers across the board from over- and under-acting and bad dialogue (“I’m not a con man. I’m a con artist!”). Cage plays his character’s involuntary tics and grunts for laughs, but it usually comes across as demeaning and ridiculous. Lohman as Angela is an over-emotive and unconvincing teenager. Maybe that’s because she’s a 23-year-old playing a 14-year-old.

If this were summer, “Matchstick Men” might not be a bad movie to kill a couple of hours. But if you’ve got something better to do, do that instead.

Grade: C