It's about time Sir Ridley tried his hand at comedy. Not that his films have all been all that serious. There are certainly pieces of Thelma & Louise that are funny. Parts of the shamefully underrated Legend are made up of great little gags. Some would say that the whole business of Ray Liotta's character eating his own brain in Hannibal is dark comic genius. But Matchstick Men -- the title is another term for grifters -- is, by all accounts, a comedy, with its central story of con men bilking people in get-rich-quick schemes.

The odd thing is that sometimes it's hard, or at least a little uncomfortable, to laugh. There's Roy (Nicolas Cage), with many years in the business and a tidy fortune tucked away. He's a nice enough guy, considering what he does to innocent strangers. But he's got obsessive-compulsive disorder, a mental affliction that forces him to count out loud and to be a neat-freak. He also has so many physical tics that he borders on having Tourette's Syndrome. Should we be laughing at his afflictions? In the hands of a lesser actor, that might be a problem. But the cagey Cage works it up just to the level where it really is funny. He plays it in a comic manner, without ever denigrating anyone who does suffer as his character does.

It's not at all hard to laugh at his partner in crime, Frank (Sam Rockwell), who adds an easygoing sleaziness to his otherwise fairly normal persona. Rockwell is getting more comfortable on the screen with each role he plays: He was note-perfect as Chuck Barris in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, cold-blooded and frightening as Wild Bill in The Green Mile, and hilarious as Guy in Galaxy Quest. Rockwell gets great laughs in this one just by the way he takes his shoes off -- as everyone must -- when visiting Roy's house. As uptight as Roy is, that's how loosey-goosey Frank is.

The story, while staying fairly light, gets complicated right away. Roy runs out of whatever medication is sort of controlling his problems, and is convinced by Frank to see a shrink, just to smooth things out so they can continue working. The even more easygoing shrink (Bruce Altman) gets Roy some effective meds, but also gets him to sit down and talk -- no simple job with this nervous Nellie -- soon finding out that the wife who walked out on Roy 14 years earlier might have had a child by him.

Unfortunately, his wife hasn't even spoken to him in all those years, but good old Dr. Klein is more than happy to make the necessary call, discovering that little Angela (Alison Lohman) is indeed about 14. He sets up a rendezvous between the long-lost father and daughter.

Complications ensue and the comedy gets brighter, mostly because poor, well-meaning Roy, who already has enough problems, doesn't have a clue about how to be a father to anyone -- much less to the sharp-spirited teenager who decides to move in with him.

Cage and Rockwell are great together onscreen, though anyone watching will believe they are problematic as partners. Cage and Altman provide some doctor-patient scenarios that, although a bit exaggerated here, most likely happen somewhere every day. But the scenes with Cage and Lohman are the linchpins of the movie, and they don't miss a single note. Cage has proven himself over and over in films; Lohman, who showed promise in White Oleander, delivers completely this time.

Everything slowly but surely leads up to the big con that will allow Roy to get out of the business. (His target is rich, nasty Frechette, the ever-fabulous Bruce McGill, who's still best known as D-Day in Animal House.)

Meanwhile, Scott, a director who loves to play around with sight and sound, is having a field day. The audience gets to see through Roy's eyes, and when one of his attacks comes on, things speed up and slow down around him. And the soundtrack is brimming with the hippest of music: Sinatra, Bobby Darin and that ilk.

And then, not only must the job get done, but father and daughter must come to terms. In addition, Roy must convince any doubters that he's not a criminal but a con artist, with an accent on artist. And then everything that could possibly go wrong does go wrong -- before it all goes very weird. This turns out to be a big, enjoyable treat, with twists and turns galore, all serving to summon up a lyric in the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever": "Nothing is real."

The Nightmare Before Christmas @ The Kenworthy

Thu., Dec. 8, 7-8:30 p.m.
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