Even Money (2007): Mark Rydell’s Pulpy Crime Thriller, Starring Forest Whitaker and Kim Basinger

Strong actors crap out in Even Money, a middling drama that waffles between being a pulpy crime thriller and a moralistic ensemble piece about the evils of gambling addiction.

Vet director Mark Rydell (On Golden Pond) keeps the film afloat thanks to the quality performances, but first-time writer Robert Tannen’s cliche script offers little to a cast headed by Oscar winners Kim Basinger and Forest Whitaker.

Carolyn (Basinger) is a novelist working on her second book. But when she says goodbye to her husband Tom (Ray Liotta), telling him that shes heading out to a local coffee shop to work on her tome, she in fact sneaks off to a nearby casino to indulge her addiction to playing the slots. Meanwhile, Clyde (Whitaker), a down-and-out plumber, cheers on his younger brother Godfrey (Nick Cannon), a stellar high school basketball player who has dreams of going to the pros. While Clyde wants the best for Godfrey, he implores his kid brother to fix games so that he can dig himself out of a hole hes found himself in after owing thousands of dollars to a bookie.

We also meet two bookies (played by Jay Mohr and Grant Sullivan) who make a decent living but cant compare to the ruthless demeanor and impressive wealth of Victor (Tim Roth), a criminal involved in gambling rings and other nefarious pursuits. But even Victor may not be crafty enough to escape a determined detective (Kelsey Grammer) who suspects his involvement in a recent area murder.

Starting with several plot threads that will eventually tie together, Even Money traces the lives of disparate people ensnared in legal and illegal forms of gambling. As Dave Grusins moody score and Grammers fatalistically hard-boiled voiceover indicate from the beginning, no good can come to poor souls unable to break free of their addiction.

Several factors keep this drama from being absorbing. The different scenarios dreamed up by Tannen feel overly familiar. Clydes attempts to corrupt his brothers NBA aspirations lack the originality or authenticity of a superior basketball drama like Spike Lees underrated He Got Game, and the resolution of his predicament plays out predictably. Elsewhere, Carolyns downward spiral, which finds her drifting further away from her husband and daughter as she gambles away the familys savings, offers no insights or surprises, except for the novel gender reversal, the irresponsible, selfish spouse is the woman while the abandoned sensitive partner waiting at home is the man.

In these two central stories, Even Money fails both to convey the juicy thrill of a winning bet and to dramatize the sickening slow-motion nightmare of a terrible losing streak. Tannens script and Rydells ponderous direction observe the addicts from a remove that prevents engagement with the characters quandaries.

Disastrously, the movie also attempts to be a neo-noir whodunit, involving Grammers formulaic tough-talking detective and a police sting operation that recruits Mohrs bookie to get a confession out of Roths villainous character. Rydell has no feel for noir, and so the plots gumshoe elements seem unconvincing. Even Money doesnt have the dramatic heft to justify its digressions into murder and violence.

The performances are all serviceable, but these fine actors have done better work in other projects. Basinger portrays the desperation of her creatively blocked, undisciplined novelist, but since the filmmakers dont give enough clues into the reasons for her gambling addiction, Carolyns pathetic behavior has little emotional pull. Likewise, Whitaker, who always brings a certain volatile command to every role, is trapped playing a barely-sketched-out loser whom he renders sympathetically; its a meager part, and theres only so much he can do with it. Roth has fun playing a smug criminal without hamming it up, and Danny DeVito is effective as a washed-up magician trying for a comeback, but Even Money only envisions its characters as hard-luck types or crime-novel caricatures.

While Even Money opts for a heavy-handed tone, sermonizing about gambling addiction with utter bleakness, it might be helpful to remember Robert Altmans 1973 California Split about two lovable goofballs (played by Elliott Gould and George Segal), who were always looking for the next bet, whether it was poker or a horserace. Altman and his actors showed the exuberance as well as the mood swings that visit compulsive gamblers on a regular basis–and the movie was extremely funny when it wasnt heartbreakingly tragic. By comparison, Even Money is too sincere and high-minded for such frivolous fun. Interestingly, though, it has much less to say about gambling despite all its heavy lifting and furrowed brows.

Credits

Running time: 108 minutes

Director: Mark Rydell
Production companies: Bob Yari Productions, Apollo Media, Three Wolves
US distribution: Yari Film Group Releasing
Producers: Bob Yari, Danny DeVito, David S. Greathouse, Mary Rydell
Executive producers: Jan Korbelin, Marina Grasic, Thomas Becker, Dennis Brown
Co-producers: Henry Boger, Rita Branch, Betsy Danbury, Robert Katz, Eric Miller, Johnny Sanchez, Roger Zamudio
Screenplay: Robert Tannen
Cinematography: Robbie Greenberg
Editor: Hughes Winborne
Production design: Robert Pearson
Music: Dave Grusin

Cast

Carol (Kim Basinger)
Tom (Ray Liotta)
Walter (Danny DeVito)
Detective Brunner (Kelsey Grammer)
Godfrey (Nick Cannon)
Clyde (Forest Whitaker)
Murph (Grant Sullivan)
Augie (Jay Mohr)
Victor (Tim Roth)
Veronica (Carla Gugino)

Reviewed by Tim Grierson