Title: Even Money
Genre: Crime, Drama
Director: Mark Rydell
Screenwriters: Robert Tannen
Starring: Kim Basinger, Forest Whitaker, Nick Cannon
Could be I’m growing soft. I spent a long time trying to engage with Even Money: far longer than it deserves, far beyond my level of interest, and far more than will be useful to anyone. I have an excuse: it’s a movie about gambling addiction, for chrissakes — it’s hard to fathom how such a serious input leads to such a totally, emphatically, offensively unserious output. I guess it proves the truth of Ebert’s great adage: it’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.
Even Money is about gambling addiction shittily. Rather than exploring — or even giving a hoot about — the effect of the disease on actual human lives, Robert Tannen’s screenplay contrives a series of cable movie plots that culminate in the most ludicrous climax in memory. Of course, one retreat is to say that the film is meant to be iconic and exaggerated, not “real” — the bookend narrations, expounding on what we are willing to put on the line to get more of what we want, have the whiff of parable, not docudrama. But that doesn’t make the movie any less stupid, and in any event, to co-opt gambling addiction, which has roots far more complex and disturbing than “what we’re willing to put on the line,” into the service of such facile moralizing seems tasteless.
The stories are like experiments in “what’s the worst that could happen” as performed by a severely limited imagination. The most compelling of the bunch involves a compulsive sports better (Forest Whitaker) whose brother (Nick Cannon) — whom he loves to death — happens to be a rising college basketball superstar. Yes, I said “most compelling,” and if that sounds laughable, it’s all downhill from there: there’s a washed-up sleight-of-hand magician on the comeback trail (Danny DeVito), who teams up with a slot-addicted novelist (Kim Basinger) to win back the latter’s family savings by joining forces with a big-name bookie who may or may not exist; a gambling-ring underling (Tim Roth) who may or may not be the Man Behind the Curtain but who enjoys taunting the magician with delicious steak; a pair of up-and-coming bookie brothers (Jay Mohr and Grant Sullivan) one of whom has been turned by the feds and may or may not be slowly being poisoned, and the other, having fallen in love (with Carla Gugino, natch), is thinking of quitting; and a crutches-bound police detective (an unrecognizable Kelsey Grammer) who may not (or may!) be what he seems. Magically, the plot works out such that almost everyone’s fates rest on a big climactic basketball game.
Debut screenwriter Robert Tannen has seen a lot of movies, but hasn’t learned very much from them. His attempts to replicate everyday conversations are sad (“I feel like an Ethiopian!” yells Kim Basinger’s daughter to express her desire for dinner), his stabs at tough guy talk are worse, and his vision of family strife is the nadir — “I want a divorce,” says Ray Liotta to Basinger; “No you don’t! You don’t want a divorce!” responds Basinger. The screenplay’s rhythms are so emphatically typical that anyone paying any sort of attention will stay several steps ahead — gee, I wonder why a cleavage-y student could be asking Liotta’s college professor to stay behind a sec. Points, I suppose, for some attempts at thematic consistency — “nobody is perfect,” people keep insisting; true that — but Tannen never gets beyond truisms.
Obviously, I wasn’t the only one taken in: the likes of Basinger, Liotta, DeVito, Roth, Whitaker and Grammer were all somehow persuaded to join the ill-fated project, as was Oscar-nominated director Mark Rydell. The subject matter is instinctively compelling, at least until you realize that for most people struggling with gambling, their problems have little to do with championship basketball games (except ones they’ve bet on) and people named Ivan. But the problem isn’t that Even Money trivializes addiction; it’s that it’s so profoundly uninteresting in the process. Things are so much more offensive when they’re stupid.