Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito
3 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
A bad actor can screw up a really good film (Elias Kotteas, Nicholas Cage, Pauly Shore anybody?) and a good actor can save a bad film. "Even Money," a crime drama filmed in 2006, has seven great actors, and half a dozen of them get to rise above the safety first script that turns what should have been a winning film into a push.
The plot centers on the denizens in an unspecified city all looking for one big jackpot. There are four subplots that you know will somehow intertwine, and could even result in some of the characters criss-crossing into one another's worlds. Carol Carver (Kim Bassinger, giving a winning performance), a respected fiction writer, has been spending her afternoons trying to get the slot machines to pay off when she should be tapping out her next best seller. As her family's bank account dwindles, the lies she feeds her husband Tom (Ray Liotta, wasted in weak role), begin to mount. Worried Carol may be having an affair, Tom plays detective, following her to a casino and digging into her personal files, where he discovers she�s lost nearly $80,000, including their daughter's college tuition. Desperate, Carol befriends Walter, a down and out magician who teaches her how to play Blackjack. The pair scores big at the tables, but Carol loses all of the money the next afternoon. Smitten with Carol, Walter tells her he has a way for her to win all her money back. He's been given a tip by loathsome local crime wave Victor (a reptilian Tim Roth) that the St. Francis basketball team is going to lose its championship game against Loyola College.
The second plot involves Clyde Snow (acting machine Forrest Whitaker), whose younger brother, Godfrey, is the star shooter for St. Francis College. A self-employed handyman, Clyde isn�t very good at handicaps, and owes Ivan, Victor�s mysterious boss, $12,000. Clyde�s only hope is convincing his brother to throw the championship game. If he doesn�t, Clyde will need his own handyman to reassemble his body parts. If he does, Godfrey may throw away his chance at N.B.A. stardom�
The third story follows an ambitious bookie, Augie (a zippy Jay Mohr), and his love struck partner, Murph (a miscast Grant Sullivan). Battling a painful ulcer, Augie is entertaining Victor�s offer to partner up and move in on Ivan�s territory, but he�s also double-crossing Victor by wearing an F.B.I. wire during their conversation, hoping to get Victor to admit he killed rival bookie Wing Lo. Murph is too enthralled with Veronica (convincing Carla Gugino) to pay much attention to business. Their relationship craps out when she�s told what he does for a living. �Normal people don�t beat people up because they owe them money,� Veronica says to Murph, and she gives him an ultimatum � change professions or you�ll never see me again. Murph seeks solace from his best friend, but Augie can�t offer him the type of sympathetic advice he�s looking for:
Murph: It hurts like hell, Augie.
Augie: I know, I�ve been there. Pretty soon you won�t remember her name.
Murph: I�ll never forget her name.
Murph is faced with an age old dilemma � will he chose loyalty or love?...
The thinnest plot briefly centers on Tim Roth, who�s violent, crass Victor is the bridge to the other stories. Victor�s underdeveloped storyline involves disheveled, handicapped Detective Bremmer, (Kelsey Grammer, looking as if the make up department has a vendetta against him, and spouting lines that indicate the writers are in on the conspiracy). Bremmer is convinced Victor was responsible for Wing Lo�s watery retirement, but can�t prove it. He noses around for the first few minutes, and then disappears until it�s all over except for the eulogies. By then you�ve forgotten Grammer was ever in the film.
The script won�t surprise you. Most of the characters get what�s coming to them. Forrest Whitaker�s Clyde is already getting treated like he�s wearing a �Kick Me� sign at the beginning of the film, so the odds of him walking away whole (more like holed) are slim. And it�s a good bet love will conquer all as far as Veronica and Murph are concerned.
The movie�s all-star cast performs like split aces in a game of Blackjack. One hand is bound to be a winner and the other is destined to go bust. The winning hands belong to Bassinger, Whitaker, Roth, Gugino and Mohr. As author turned gambling addict, Kim Bassinger gives her best performance since she played a Veronica Lake look-alike in 1997�s �L.A. Confidential.� Forrest Whitaker has made a career playing easy-going blue collar guys muscled into a corner. You sympathize with his character because despite failing to realize his own dreams, he still wants his brother to achieve his � even if it at the cost of his own life.
Tim Roth may not look imposing, but subordinate weasels seldom do. Roth has made his acting bones playing despicable villains (he played an unsophisticated Dutch Schultz in �Hoodlum,� the barbaric ape commander Thade in the remake of �Planet of the Apes,� and the abusive Ringo in �Pulp Fiction�) so violent Victor fits his dance card. There�s nothing redeemable about Victor, particularly his shabby, patronizing treatment of Walter, so Roth gets a thumbs up for making his character believably hateful. Jay Mohr�s portrayal of the hustling, two-timing Augie is on the money. (C�mon, I had to say that at least once.) Carla Gugino has two functions in the movie: She�s Murph�s love interest and abides by the unshakable moral code that her boyfriend shouldn�t bludgeon people for bucks. Her character�s unwillingness to accept Murph�s line of work rings true, but you�ll probably wonder what she sees in a loser like Murph in the first place. And watch out for an uncredited Charles Robinson (sweater wearing clerk �Mac� on TV�s Night Court�), who plays the basketball coach. When he confronts Godfrey Snow (Mr. Mariah Carey, Nick Cannon, shooting blanks as an actor), about point shaving, Robinson�s barely controlled reaction to Snow�s betrayal is one of the best scenes in the film: �If you shave points, I�m not your coach. I�m not your friend. And boy, so help me God, don�t make me your enemy.�
The rest of the cast rolls snake eyes. Grant Sullivan�s Murph is too trusting and stupid to have made it to adulthood. Sullivan�s character also called for a much tougher looking, more assured actor. Sullivan plays Murph like Lenny from �Of Mice and Men� � dumb and a doof. I guess I just can�t stand morons who luck through life and get the girl just because they�re good looking � Murph has all the substance of tapioca. My assessment of co-producer Danny DeVito�s Walter is tainted by my dislike of the actor whenever he takes on a sympathetic role. He�s still mean-spirited Louie DePalma to me. Why? Because nasty is what he does best. Frankly, I don�t notice or care about his diminutive size as much when he plays it mean. If you remember Michael Dunn (Dr. Loveless on �The Wild Wild West�), the baddest height challenged man ever, then you know where I�m coming from. Go with your strengths, Danny Boy. When DeVito plays a nice guy, it�s usually a pushover, a pathetic, luckless loser like Walter. A retarded puppy would have served just as well, although it would have been hard to teach a mutt with no opposable thumbs the magic tricks that DeVito performs. Because Walter�s such a perpetual loser, it�s hard to buy into his relationship with Carol; he goes from offensive oaf to confidant with one sleight of hand.
At one point in the movie, Bassinger�s Carol accuses her husband, played by Ray Liotta, of being too perfect. In essence, that�s what�s wrong with his character. He�s too �Gee willikers,� too squeaky clean. The script takes a talented actor and gives him nothing to do except react transparently, like he�s living in the 1950s. C�mon, this guy held his own against Robert freakin� DeNiro in �Goodfellas,� shot holes through the traditional cop story in �Narc,� and you want him to play a lukewarm college professor? What a waste. Carson Brown, who plays his daughter Nicole, not only has better lines � her character figures out what�s wrong with the family�s Donna Reed existence faster than dad does. Kelsey Grammer may simply be in the film because he worked with the producer�s wife (Rhea Perlman) for eight years on �Cheers.� Grammer shows up at the beginning of the film wearing a hideous fake nose and chin that make him look like he should be performing with the Muppets. Not only does Grammer�s Detective Brunner serve no real purpose (okay he�s the narrator, but this flick doesn�t need one), he�s a hack when he�s on the screen � diet Sam Spade with no fizz.
It�s even money whether you�ll like this film. If you�re a fan of Kim Bassinger, Forrest Whitaker, Tim Roth or even Charles Robinson, then you�ll think �Even Money� is a winner. If not, then the loaded plot will make you feel like you�re betting against the house.