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Letting loose the laughter

After such intense films as 'Hannibal' and 'Gladiator,' Ridley Scott relaxes with the con caper 'Matchstick Men.'

October 27, 2002|Bill Desowitz | Special to The Times

Looking for a departure from the fast-paced action of historical epics and desert gun battles, not to mention the grisly appetites of a certain psychotic psychiatrist, director Ridley Scott says "Matchstick Men," a contemporary, seriocomic caper movie set in the San Fernando Valley, offered just what he was looking for.

An encounter during filming recently at Culver Studios found Scott joking with Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell and Alison Lohman during a break in what is arguably the film's most intense scene, in which their big con unexpectedly unravels.

Despite the tension required for this particular scene, the veteran director and Cage say they are in a mellower mood on this movie, which concerns a con man mired in a rut of going from one small-time scam to the next.

For Scott, who took a breather from prepping "Tripoli," his next historical epic with Russell Crowe that's about Barbary Coast pirates, it was an opportunity to make something lighter. "I cranked up the volume for the last five years" -- with "Gladiator," "Hannibal," "Black Hawk Down" -- "and now this," Scott says. "It's all about looking ahead. My lady friend and producing partner Giannina Facio found it for me.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 30, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 11 inches; 420 words Type of Material: Correction
Nicolas Cage -- A story on the film "Matchstick Men" in Sunday's Calendar incorrectly stated that Nicolas Cage recently married Priscilla Presley. He wed Lisa Marie Presley.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 03, 2002 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 104 words Type of Material: Correction
Nicolas Cage -- A story on the film "Matchstick Men" in last Sunday's Calendar incorrectly stated that Nicolas Cage recently married Priscilla Presley. He wed Lisa Marie Presley.

"I saw it as a comedy. I don't mean fall-about-laughing comedy, but a lot of witty humor. But then I thought 'Thelma & Louise' was a comedy, too.

"The central character is interesting. He's talented at being a con man but is very safe and never crosses the line into deep water. But I loved the wrinkle in the character, who also has a psychosis, which is all about guilt for taking money from unsuspecting people who are greedy."

For Cage, who recently married Priscilla Presley and continually reinvents himself after his Oscar-winning portrayal of an alcoholic Hollywood insider in "Leaving Las Vegas," the movie offered the chance to discard at least some of the screen angst he's carried over the years.

Not that Cage has lost his idiosyncratic edge. His character, Roy, is full of fears, phobias and insecurities, as he grifts his way from one cheap con after another. But he lacks the insecurity of, say, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, whom he plays in the upcoming Spike Jonze film "Adaptation."

As Cage says, "Roy feels pretty good about himself despite his behavioral problems. For me, it's a sign of maturity that I don't worry anymore about what people think of my work. I just go for it and see where it lands."

You could say the same about Scott. Having guided Crowe through an Oscar-winning performance in "Gladiator," Scott likes working with actors. He enjoys collaborating with them.

Scott gave the cast of "Matchstick Men" the freedom to physically express their behavioral problems. Cage has his usual assortment of nervous tics and gestures -- a guilt-ridden man who feels safer in his home than on the street; Rockwell, who plays Cage's partner and protege in crime, came up with a twitching routine; and Lohman, who plays Cage's teenage daughter, tapped into a klutzy side after stumbling on the set.

Offering a distinctive perspective of Scott's work on this film, Rockwell says, "It's kind of like a samurai warrior asked to open up a loaf of French bread with his sword.

"He can take a small movie like this with a linear story line and give it a special spice," continues Rockwell, last seen in "Welcome to Collinwood" and whose "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" opens in December. "He changes angle every scene. He gives it an artsy edge. But he only does two or three takes because he knows what he wants."

Rockwell is Oscar to Cage's Felix in this "Odd Couple" partnership. "I'm the comic relief," Rockwell adds, looking beat up after a fight scene and wearing a Hawaiian shirt, blue jeans and cowboy boots. "I'm the guy you don't want to lose in a horror film when things go bad." Rockwell also portrays the character who propels the plot, finally persuading Cage, who has enjoyed comfortable small-time success, to take a chance at a big $80,000 con.

The protagonist's life really gets complicated when Lohman arrives out of nowhere. Unlike her stoic performance in "White Oleander," Lohman gets to cut loose as a wisecracking 15-year-old in "Matchstick Men."

"In real life I like to observe and process things more slowly; here I get to act on impulse right away," Lohman says on her 23rd birthday, bringing to mind Little Red Riding Hood with her red sweatshirt and pink dress. On the set, she's like a sponge, absorbing everything from the more experienced, patient Cage.

A father-daughter tale at heart

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