En garde: Matchstick Men strikes two chords

If you walked out of Confidence humming "Won't Get Fooled Again," you're all primed for Matchstick Men. You know all the tricks con men and movies about them can pull, and you're too smart to get caught by any of them.

Yeah, right. And for $9.98 I'll send you the secret of turning toilet paper into $100 bills. (Hint: It has to be double-ply.)

It's because we think we're smart that– although most of us are far more likely to be marks in life than the people who dupe them– we still identify with the flim-flammers in movies like Matchstick Men.

The tricky thing about Matchstick Men is that it keeps you guessing what genre it falls into. Screenwriters know every movie has an "A" story and one or more "B" stories– the romance that develops during the pursuit of the primary goal, or a detour into the life of an interesting supporting character.

So– and watch my hands very closely– is the "A" story in Matchstick Men about the con itself, or is it about "con artist" Roy Waller (Nicolas Cage) being transformed by unexpected parenthood and maybe even getting out of the game?

If you've seen trailers or promotional clips, you know Roy has more tics and quirks than all the characters Cage has played previously put together. They show so much of that stuff I wasn't looking forward to watching two hours of it, but it's actually under control for much of the movie, as long as Roy takes his meds.

It's when he runs out of meds that his partner, Frank Mercer (Sam Rockwell), hooks him up with a new shrink, Dr. Klein (Bruce Altman). A few basic questions reveal Frank's last relationship was a wife he left when she was pregnant. They've had no contact since, and Frank doesn't know if he has a 14-year-old child...

Until Angela (Alison Lohman) shows up, arranged by Dr. Klein at Roy's request. They hit it off, and she– not on the greatest terms with her mom– starts spending a lot of time at Roy's house, upsetting his obsessively (or is it compulsively?) ordered routine.

Roy rationalizes his career– he doesn't take money from people; they give it to him out of greed or weakness (only in America would a victim's weakness be justification for robbery)– but eventually admits to Angela he's not crazy about it. She, however, is fascinated and wants to learn all she can. Soon every day is Take Your Daughter to Work Day for Roy.

Roy stashes his money away– in a safety deposit box and a plaster dog that guards his house– while Frank spends his faster than they can make it. At first Roy resists Frank's plea to go after bigger game– "I don't do long cons"– but with another mouth to feed, he agrees to help Frank take Chuck Frechette (Bruce McGill), whom Frank calls "fish in a barrel."

From there on, everything proceeds smoothly, without a single hitch. (Have you sent me that $9.98 yet? Tell you what, if you do it within 15 minutes, I'll knock ten percent off the price.)

Director Ridley Scott, taking a break from action blockbusters, balances the dual plotlines superbly. That could mean it's too sentimental for you if you're looking for a hard-edged crime drama, and includes too much illegal activity if you want a sweet movie about a father-daughter relationship. So your best bet is to go in looking for a good movie with no further expectations.

That way you won't get conned.