By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated September 10, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

Matchstick Men teeters on a cracked foundation of two currently popular movie gimmicks: the comic vulnerability of a mook in need of psychiatric help, and the tricked-up mechanics of swindles and switcheroos. The first is probably a passing phase that will run its course when ”The Sopranos” does, or whenever Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal have completed their ”Analyze Whatever” course of treatment. The second is a much more therapy-resistant condition — to the detriment of style-driven, inconsequential capers like this one.

Roy (Nicolas Cage) is the lead matchstick man (as con artists are variously called) in this particular elaborate racket directed by Ridley Scott, and Roy makes a good living as a grifter despite his outsize psychological problems. Slave to his own obsessive-compulsive routines, an agoraphobe all but incapacitated by exposure to fresh air, and a frantic chain-smoker, Roy is such a mass of woes that it’s a wonder he can set polished foot out of his spotless Los Angeles swingin’ 1960s-style house at all. (He can’t, without first opening and closing his front door three times while chanting ”uno, due, tre.”) Not that we particularly need him to, I suppose, since Cage’s bravura display of eyelid twitches and grunts is its own audience reward: Roy may not be nearly as marvelous an invention as the virtuoso Donald-and-Charlie-Kaufman tour de force that recharged the actor’s batteries in ”Adaptation,” but Cage is still in a more-fun zone following the no-fun action-hero years.

At least Roy’s partner and protégé, Frank (”Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”’s Sam Rockwell, who seems destined by a kind of excessive interestingness to forever be a colorful sidekick), has no such problems. He may be a slob and a sleaze, but Frank is able to get out of bed in the morning easily, and with his assistance (and a prescription for behavior-modification pills), Roy makes a decent living pulling off indecent scams, including the sale of bogus water-filtration systems to marks who fork over bank-account info because they want to believe they’ve also won big prizes.

It’s when Roy runs out of meds that the trouble begins. Opening up to a new psychoanalyst (Bruce Altman), the sad sack talks about a child he may have out there somewhere, the possible offspring of a marriage long broken, and soon his conjecture is confirmed. He’s the parent of disarming 14-year-old Angela (Alison Lohman), who meets the father she never knew she had, smiles at him through a retainer, and charms her way into his home (tracking dreaded dirt into the house) and work: The girl, with her pleading eyes and her tomboy taste in skateboards and pigtails, turns out to be a born con artist, just like Dad. And with a combination of affectionate pride in his kid and ambivalence about the road she’s choosing, Roy begins to include Angela in his schemes. Lohman, the saving grace of ”White Oleander,” does a great service to adolescent girls everywhere by creating a character who eats heartily and happily and is in no hurry to wear high heels or expose her navel.

It’s a spoiler, of course, to tell much about any movie built on matchsticks, so that’s quite enough about Roy, Angela, and Frank. It’s reasonable, however, to point out that the unsteady juggling of touchy-feely, daddy-daughter ”depth” is ultimately overmatched by the machine-milled plot twists of the script by ”Ocean’s Eleven” writer Ted Griffin and his brother, Nicholas, based on a book by Eric Garcia. And that imbalance may be the strongest argument yet for filmmakers of both studio and indie provenance to back off from the whole show-offy ”gotcha!” thing. The enlightened concept of bad guys in real pain, and the added gloss of empathy for a father surprised by the depth of his love for his kid, amount to about as earnest an attempt as any at freshening the sleight-of-hand genre; certainly Cage’s energized participation and Lohman’s striking charisma are welcome additives. Yet when the last hoop has been jumped through, it’s the gimmickry we remember, not the trumpeted emotional growth of the principals.

Actually, there’s one other way to approach ”Matchstick Men,” and that’s to forget all about neuroses and con artistry and admire the movie instead for the unsettlingly beautiful directorial study in geographical mood that it is. There’s a certain kind of white, piercing, empty light to the Los Angeles sky at certain times of day — and gold, piercing emptiness at others — that can make a person want to commit suicide, or snort cocaine, or write a screenplay, or at least stare with glazed eyes into the depths of his Hockney-blue backyard swimming pool. The design-trained Scott, a master of atmosphere from ”Blade Runner” to ”Gladiator,” and his ”Gladiator” cinematographer, John Mathieson, convey this sick, exciting hopelessness and ambition so perfectly in moments of idly inventive shooting that it’s possible, for those so inclined, to forget about all the flimflam and fatherhood routines and page through ”Matchstick Men” like a coffee-table album.

I’m more curious to know the story of the perforated vertical louvered blinds that filter out the brutal sunshine in Roy’s immaculate, carpeted living room, or the second-rate California decor of Roy’s shrink’s office, because surely there’s heartbreak and hilarity to be read into such lovingly chosen, precisely incorporated signifiers. Indeed, the director of ”Matchstick Men” seems eager to tell those stories, his restless, experimental pacing and framing sometimes suggesting that he longs to let loose. There’s just no room to explain, not in a movie less interested in carpeting than in pulling the rug out from under.