Even Money (2006) / Drama-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for violence, brief sexuality, and language
Running Time: 108 min.

Cast: Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito, Tim Roth, Forest Whitaker, Grant Sullivan, Jay Mohr, Nick Cannon, Ray Liotta, Carla Gugino, Kelsey Grammer
Director: M
ark Rydell
Screenplay: Robert Tannen
Review published May 5, 2007

Here's the four-word film review: Even Money, uneven movie.

Several interconnected storylines take place, each with their own pessimistic take on the downside of gambling.  Basinger (Cellular, The Door in the Floor) probably should receive the top billing, playing an author struggling with writer's block, who spends her days trying to start on a novel, then her nights throwing good money away on the slots at the local casino.  While there, she meets a two-bit magician named Abraham (DeVito, The OH in Ohio), who has been desperate in trying to find some odd jobs to perform for underground crime figure Ivan, except his second in command, Victor (Roth, Dark Water), more or less keeps telling him to piss off. 

Meanwhile, Victor is overseeing the operations of a couple of bookies, Murph (Sullivan) and Augie (Mohr, King's Ransom), who are a bit dismayed about the work they do.  Augie is suffering from job-related stress and Murph is on the outs with his girlfriend (Gugino, Snake Eyes) once she catches wind that he beats up people for nonpayment.  Their latest client to put the squeeze on is Clyde Snow (Whitaker, Phone Booth), whose nephew Godfrey (Cannon, Shall We Dance) is a burgeoning college basketball star on the verge of making it big in the NBA.  Clyde keeps getting in the hole with his gambling problem, and becomes so desperate for funds to climb back out, he cajoles his nephew into trying to shave points.

The screenplay by first-timer Robert Tannen suggests a cautionary tale about the evils of gambling, possibly in the same manner of which Traffic related the evils of the drug trade, although a bit more pat.  Actually, the subject matter and the delivery feel as though it were cobbled together from episodes of television dramas on the subject, and if not for the stars and strong language, you'd probably easily confuse it with watching a television movie.  Not that television movies are always inferior fare, but they certainly cover different ground than the theatrical releases, by and large, and what amounts to a two-hour PSA is not the sort of thing that most people would pay money to see.

I think the real problem with Even Money isn't so much the preachy nature of it as it is its artlessness.  Certainly a film about gambling addiction could be done and be compelling enough to please theater audiences, but as it plays here, there is just something too common, too glib about it that makes it seem rather unremarkable.  One thing's for sure, the direction by Mark Rydell (On Golden Pond, Intersection) is certainly not in keeping with the rather dour nature of Tannen's script, as he films the entire production as if it were some sort of comedy.  The lighting is bright, the characters colorful, the cast is full of actors who generally play in lightweight fare, and the score by Dave Grusin (Random Hearts, Hope Floats) upbeat.  I'm not sure what frothiness Rydell spotted in this subject matter that I didn't, but if there is something funny in it, I'm at a loss to spot where it should have come into play.

No, this won't do for gambling what Crash, which shares credits with a couple of the exec producers, did for race relations, especially since most of the misery found in the film is self inflicted -- racism effects all of us in a much more rooted and substantial fashion.  While gambling addiction can certainly be a problem that causes some ripple effects to family and friends, as is organized crime's tampering in the lives of others, it's the sort of subject matter that doesn't really merit heavy-handed education in the guise of entertainment.  Not even gambling addicts need a movie to teach them that losing all their money will probably make life much more difficult for them and those dependent on them. 

The worst aspect: Kelsey Grammer (Teacher's Pet, The Big Empty) plays a police detective who, for reasons unknown from a story standpoint, sports crutches, and a prosthetic nose and chin.  Perhaps appropriate that he provides the narration, as the film he introduces is crippled by predictable plotlines and puts on a false face of weightiness to deal with issues that only those who participate in the lifestyle will find any value in. 

I realize that some people think it's improper to give a negative review to a film that seeks to be a positive moral influence for those who need it, but really, will anyone's life drastically change after viewing Even Money?  I wouldn't bet on it.

Qwipster's rating

©2007 Vince Leo