Director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Thelma and Louise, Blade Runner) has assembled the ingredients in this movie like a perfectly iced martini that is stirred, not shaken. The result is dry but refreshing — and with a kick.
Nicolas Cage plays Roy, who is so proud of his ability to entice money from unsuspecting marks that he prefers to be referred to not as a con man but a “con artist,” specializing in the “short con,” the quick and simple cheat that does not require an elaborate set-up. But his conflicts about his success have left him feeling even more uneasy than he is willing to admit.
As a result, he has displaced his sense of guilt and has become ticcy and obsessive-compulsive, repeating motions, scrubbing windows, afraid of the outdoors. His source for the illegal drugs he had been using to control the symptoms disappeared, so his partner, Frank (Sam Rockwell) recommends a psychiatrist (Bruce Altman). In order to get the doctor to prescribe medication, Roy agrees to therapy. This leads him to explore unresolved issues from his past, including his longing for the child he never met. When his wife left him, she was pregnant. Fourteen years later, he does not know if she had a boy or girl or where they are.
The doctor helps Roy find his daughter, Angela (Alison Lohman). He is overwhelmed and deeply touched by her open-heartedness. And when she is fascinated by his skill as a con artist and when she shows that she has inherited it, he is very proud but also a little horrified. He wants something better for her than what he has had. He wants to be better for her than he has been. Maybe the thing to do is one last “long con” and then he and Angela can live happily ever after. But, as Roy tells Angela, the challenge for a con artist is being ready for things that you did not plan.
We see Roy using his best line on a mark: “What could be more important than family?” It is one of the movie’s uses of duality that he will find out what that question truly means. And when he tells Angela to be as open and honest with her mark as she can be, it is clear to both of them that open and honest is not his speciality, that he has conned for so long he may not know how to do anything else. The man who could not bear to have a shoe touch his carpet ends up making the biggest mess of all.
Altman is excellent, Lohman and Rockwell are both impeccable, but Cage is mesmerizing. His performance perfectly matches Scott’s direction, both exploring the movie’s multi-layered themes of conflict, betrayal, counterpoint, inversion, imperatives, and longing. This is a movie about con games at every level; characters con each other and con themselves.
And of course the ultimate con artist here is the movie itself. Some audience members will think there is at least one twist too many, and others will find that the pieces do not hold together as well as they might like. But others will appreciate its superb performances and story-telling, as cool as cocktail music.
Parents should know that the movie includes violence with some graphic injuries. Characters use strong language, drink, smoke, and self-medicate. There are some sexual references. And of course the main characters lie, cheat, and steal.
Families who see this movie should talk about how Roy’s failure to be honest with himself and the people he stole from may have led to his symptoms. How did Angela change his life? How did he change hers?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy The Sting and As Good as it Gets.