Roy and Frank are a mismatched duo of low-level con men, considering that one is an obsessive-compulsive and the other a louche chancer. But their dysfunctional partnership and Roy's teetering sanity face an even bigger challenge in the shape of Roy's 14 year-old daughter.
After the bullish brunt of making Gladiator, Hannibal and Black Hawk Down in quick succession, you can see why Ridley Scott's curiosity was piqued by this relatively low-wattage study of fragmenting lives, set against a bleached-out Los Angeles only a cab ride from the studio. Just five characters, a wash of small-time criminality and an emphasis on matters of the heart. Broadly speaking, it is a comedy.
The script's loose-limbed dialogue and teasingly back-to-front ethics - Roy, a con man, is dedicated to playing the moral guardian to his zesty daughter - make for ripe, complex set-ups. The plot only flirts with the wacky, elaborate grifts, being more concerned with paying off on its emotional trickery to bring the father-daughter bonding to fragrant life.
Most of this is down to the magical Miss Lohman. Sloughing away the designer jailbait brathood of vacuum-packed stars such as Hilary Duff and Amanda Bynes, Lohman inhabits a bright, tomboyish 14 year-old, flip-flopping between hair-trigger tears and the most beguiling movie smile since Natalie Portman in her heyday. Amazing to think Lohman's really 24.
Cage's rattling cage is nothing new, but his vibrant pick 'n' mix of tics and stutters lacks the testy impact of Nicholson's recent compulsions. It's his exhaustive attempts at parenthood that reveal the man. Meanwhile, Rockwell purrs out his slick dialogue, a sub-role to the main drama, but one thick with humour.
Understandably and encouragingly, none of this feels like a Ridley Scott movie. Restrained in style and paced to the slow, midday thrum of a swollen summer, you might as well be strolling the sidewalks of one of Barry Levinson's family talkathons.
Scott's artistry is working in a subtler mode, editing to the jerky, awkward beats of Roy's mania, filling the frame with lurid, troubling POV shots that give the audience the uncomfortable sensation of having developed their own mental shudders. Ironically, it is one of the healthiest choices the director has made in years.
Scott tucks away his visual athletics in favour of something leisurely and quietly devastating. It's ultimately far more cunning a script than we can reveal here.
Reviewed by Ian Nathan