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Even Money

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 09/25/07 19:13:11

"Craps."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

With opening scenes featuring cops, snitches, dead bookies, and rainy alleyways, “Even Money” promises to be a somber film noir. Added details like an unseen top-level criminal named Ivan, a basketball star talked into point shaving, and a washed-up magician with ties to the underground only push that promise further, suggesting tones of David Mamet. A top level cast and an Oscar-nominated director only increase the potential.

So where did that movie go, and why did it leave so quickly? “Even Money,” directed by Mark Rydell (“The Rose,” “On Golden Pond”) from a script by first-time screenwriter Robert Tannen, rapidly devolves into something clumsy and melodramatic and downright cheesy as it struggles to become a Very Important Film about the dangers of gambling addiction. The moral doesn’t fit: we either keep watching the detective and the crime lord and the bookies and wonder where the danger is, or we watch the wife piss away the family nest egg and wonder why this story needs to be punctuated by all the crime stuff. A last minute twisteroo - completely unnecessary to anything, really - only emphasizes that the movie wants to be two different things the whole way through, but isn’t any good at being either.

The stories crisscross in a manner that wants to suggest a multilayered grandeur but never quite make it. Jay Mohr and Grant Sullivan are low-level bookies trying to make it big; Carla Gugino is Sullivan’s girlfriend who’s shocked to discover his line of work; Tim Roth is the made man with ties to Ivan (who may or may not exist); Forest Whitaker is the gambler who convinces rising star brother Nick Cannon to help him win a few bets; Kelsey Grammer is the cop investigating a bookie’s murder; Kim Basinger is an author who spends her time and money at a local casino; Ray Liotta is her husband left at home; Danny DeVito is the has-been magician who lures Basinger into his life of crime.

With so much going on, it’s not surprising that most of it doesn’t add up to anything. Grammer’s detective character offers little to the story (remove him, rewrite a few scenes, and it’s pretty much the same movie), while Gugino’s troubled girlfriend is so disconnected from the plot that she only exists to pop in every once in a while, talk about why gambling is bad, then disappear until her next appointment.

Other storylines remain mired in formula. The Whitaker/Cannon thread offers nothing new; if you’ve seen any movie about point shaving, you’ll find no surprises here. The melodramatics, then, result in hammy performances and awkward dialogue while anything of actual interest fails to materialize until the final moments - although those scenes are presented in big, bold letters, highlighted and underlined, just to make sure we Get It.

The most ham-fisted moments concern Basinger, whose spiral into failure is handled cheaply and clumsily. Her scenes are redundant, never really moving forward until late in the picture. Until then, it’s the same old Basinger-gets-the-gambling-bug, Liotta-wrings-his-hands dramatics, lather, rinse, repeat. It’s the movie equivalent of playing a slot machine for hours without a single payout.

Somewhere in here, there’s a good movie screaming to be let out. There’s a grime on display that could’ve set the stage for a bitterly sharp noir. But too many characters and too much moralizing gets in the way, and the good stuff gets buried too deeply. Tannen’s script dances with ridiculous one too many times (the dialogue is made of so much tin the cast needs a sardine key to open it), while Rydell pushes the whole mess to go broader and broader, eventually pushing it right off a cliff.

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