Nicolas Cage and Alison Lohman in Matchstick MenMATCHSTICK MEN

Ostensibly, Ridley Scott's dramatic comedy Matchstick Men deals with Roy (Nicolas Cage), a professional con artist, connecting with Angela (Alison Lohman), the 14-year-old daughter he never knew he had, and trying to better himself as a father figure.

Ah, but wait: Roy has a truckload of psychosomatic tics that would seem to define him as an obsessive-compulsive with Turret's, causing him to seek the Sopranos-esque counsel of a well-meaning therapist (Bruce Altman). Oh, but there's more: Roy and his squirrelly partner (Sam Rockwell) are also attempting an elaborate con job that Roy, having discovered her knack for the family business, reluctantly involves Angela in. In a just world, all of these plotlines would collide in a thoroughly satisfying manner, yet by Matchstick Men's finale, you realize that they've merely been in the service of a generic switcheroo, one completely unsurprising to viewers of The Usual Suspects or House of Games or numerous lesser works. In the end, the time we've spent with Roy's is sacrificed for the inevitable final twist, and the movie feels like a cheat.

Too bad, because Matchstick Men has a lot going for it. It features Scott's unique brand of glossy professionalism and moves swiftly, and Cage comes through with an amusing, technically adept performance. Yet Lohman, vibrant actress though she is, overplays her character's gaucheness so thoroughly that you keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, and the ever-jumpy Rockwell, whose nervous energy had the proper outlet in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, practically reeks of untrustworthiness - you never buy him as a successful con artist. The (probably intentional) phoniness of their work keeps you guarded from moment one, and keeps you from ever fully connecting with Matchstick Men. A movie like Heist or Confidence can entertain you with their endless reversals because they're only about the reversals, but Matchstick Men tries to convince you that it's about people; the fact that it's not, and that you can feel it's not even during the father-daughter bonding and psychiatric sessions, makes Matchstick Men a con job on the audience itself, and an unwelcome one at that.


Johnny Depp in Once Upon a Time in MexicoONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO

Once Upon a Time in Mexico is like the Cannonball Run of shoot-'em-ups, which isn't necessarily an insult. The third entry in a series that began with El Mariachi and continued with 1995's Desperado, Robert Rodriguez's latest installment feels about as improvisatory as any movie featuring pyrotechnics and exploding squibs ever could; it feels like a prolonged in-joke without a punchline, but it's hard to argue that the results aren't pretty entertaining. Hired by a mysterious CIA agent (Johnny Depp) to execute a Mexican drug lord, Antonio Banderas' guitar-playing assassin again finds himself involved in all manner of intrigue, complete with an endless series of double-crosses and sexual gamesmanship with Salma Hayek, and even if you're never exactly sure who's doing what to whom or why - fear not, you won't be alone - the kinetic thrill with which Rodriguez wields his camera provides a lot of disreputable enjoyment. (It's a blessed relief to have Rodrieguez momentarily freed from the tired Spy Kids franchise.) Excepting Ms. Hayek, who continues to take herself too seriously, Mexico's cast appears to be on Rodriguez's wavelength; Willem Dafoe, Cheech Marin, and that crowned prince of eccentricity, Johnny Depp, give loony-for-the-sake-of-looniness performances that are enormously appealing, and Banderas shows some of the inventiveness he displayed in his work for Almodovar. Once Upon a Time in Mexico is like the action-film equivalent of a sketch-comedy series like Saturday Night Live; it's hit-or-miss throughout, but it sure gets points for trying.


Philip Seymour Hoffman in Owning MahownyOWNING MAHOWNY

As I recently spent space in this column extolling the virtues of that magnificent character actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, the chance to see him onscreen in a leading role - romancing Minnie Driver, no less! - was more than enough impetus to catch Owning Mahowny, currently playing at the Brew & View. And, as usual, Mr. Hoffman is superb. Playing Dan Mahowny, an obsessive gambler who embezzles his necessary funds from the Canadian bank he co-manages, Hoffman again digs deeply into grubby states of anxiety and torment, and the shrewdest thing that he and director Richard Kwietniowski do is show how Mahowny receives absolutely no joy from his escapades, even when his winnings top $1 million. Owning Mahowny is one of very few dramas that really gets at the addiction of gambling; Hoffman, hunched over the blackjack or craps table in a knot of inner pain, looks as if, at any moment, he's ready to curl up into a ball and die. (A friend of mine, commenting on Hoffman's continual downward gaze, said that his forehead gave a magnificent performance.) Everything about Hoffman's portrayal feels authentic; authenticity and drama, however, aren't the same thing, and Owning Mahowny feels patently undramatic. Its scenes aren't shaped with any sense of escalating tension - Mahowny keeps embezzling bigger and bigger sums of money, but you feel no threat or danger as a result of his actions - and the effect of Mahowny's gambling, both in his workplace and with his girlfriend, barely registers. (As The Love Interest, Driver is hampered by both a doormat role and a laughably phony blond wig.) With the exception of John Hurt's enjoyably hammy work, Owning Mahowny is criminally devoid of vitality and any kind of dramatic fire; it feels like the most Canadian movie ever made.


Heath Ledger in The OrderTHE ORDER

Considering that the genre hasn't delivered a work of any artistic or commercial merit since 1973's The Exorcist, can someone explain to me why studios keep churning out quasi-religious supernatural thrillers? Every so often we're treated to another one of these losers - End of Days, Stigmata, Lost Souls - featuring incantations and portents of doom and the threat of Eeeeevil, and each new one is gloomier, and unintentionally sillier, than the last. The most recent entry in this abhorrent genre is Brian Helgeland's The Order, and if the nuances of the plot are lost on me - it has something to do with a young priest facing a spritual killer called The Sin Eater - it's because I could barely stay awake. This dreary horror dud, with its black-on-black art direction and snail's pacing, put me in a mental state I seemed to share with the movie's star, Heath Ledger, who is far too green a performer to be acting this bored. Exuding all the dramatic fire of a somnambulist on Quaaludes, Ledger mopes around with absolutely no variety; it's as if the energy required to even arch an eyebrow would tax him. There's no reason to dwell on the mess that is The Order - Helgeland's reputation (he won an Oscar for L.A. Confidential's screenplay) will probably be redeemed with next month's Mystic River - except to pray that Hollywood's next supernatural exercise be a lot more spirited.

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