Finder's Fee

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/26/07 23:29:33

"A nifty, airtight character piece."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

I’m not sure how to mention the fact that dopey “Survivor” host Jeff Probst has written and directed a movie without you rolling your eyes and thinking it to be a silly vanity project that simply couldn’t be of any quality. I thought the same until I finally saw his film, a nifty low budget indie titled “Finder’s Fee.” And now I’m in the awkward position of convincing others that Jeff Probst, of all people, is a fairly talented filmmaker.

The film stars Erik Palladino as Tepper, an aw-shucks nice guy who’s kind to his elderly neighbor and sweet on his girlfriend, to whom he’s about to pop the question. He’s so nice that when he finds a wallet in the street, he goes to great lengths to track down the owner. But the wallet manages to bring out Tepper’s darker side when he finds a lottery ticket inside - one with the winning numbers.

The complications begin when his buddies arrive for their weekly poker game. It seems that the boys play a round of Last Man Standing with lotto tickets, not cash, as the pot. And it seems that the boys have a code that no one checks the winning numbers before the game. And it seems like Tepper must find a way to keep his knowledge of the winning numbers a secret and walk away with the ticket at night’s end.

And on top of all that, he also has to deal with the wallet’s owner, Avery (James Earl Jones). When Avery stops by to pick up the wallet, the boys invite him to stick around and play a few hands. But does the older gentleman notice that Tepper’s switched tickets? Does Avery know the winning numbers? Do any of Tepper’s friends?

“Finder’s Fee” plays out in real time in a single set - Tepper’s apartment - giving the movie the look and feel of a filmed play. And as a play, this would be a pretty good one; for the most part, it’s all about dialogue and the interaction of characters who are trying to outsmart each other without revealing their true intentions. It’s fun to watch the intellectual bluffs and bets unravel, as the cunning of a good poker match is bumped up beyond the confines of a card game.

At 99 minutes, the one-note movie begins to lose steam as the plot keeps chugging along with actions that become a bit redundant from time to time; the script could’ve lost a good ten minutes or so without any damage to the overall story. But this is ultimately a minor quibble, as the characters are interesting enough and the cast sharp enough that the interplay makes up for any bumpy moments. Jones is his usual great self, Palladino lends a nice nervous wreck quality to his role, and costars Matthew Lillard, Ryan Reynolds, and Dash Mihok all provide better performances than they’ve given in, I dunno, ever.

And while the story’s ending leaves too many questions for it to work as well as the story deserves it to, it still leaves us thinking, discussing, and arguing, which is always a good thing. Probst has crafted a nifty little story for his film debut, and I’m actually looking forward to see what he’ll do next. Who knew?

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