“Stupid motherfucker.” – Detective Brunner
I can’t think of another film in Kelsey Grammer’s entire career where he’s ever uttered that line, in such a low voice. It’d be worth waiting to hear it at the end of “Even Money,” if all the scenes preceding it were equally worthwhile.
Grammer plays the aloof detective with a semi-Stacy Keach mustache, a prosthetic nose and chin, eyes lowered as far as they can go, and crutches, the result of a war wound, though which war it was doesn’t matter, because none of this film really matters and screenwriter Robert Tannen and director Mark Rydell treat it that way. Does Rydell not realize how shoddy Kim Basinger acts on camera, shaking at every dramatic opportunity? Does Rydell not see how ridiculous Walter’s (Danny DeVito) act on a streetcorner is, having people guess at which one of three cards is the queen? Who today would ever stand on a streetcorner watching that act? Who would ever be intrigued enough to bet on such a crappy game? In the real world, no one. In this movie world, too many.
Most of all, the cardinal sin is how Grammer is wasted so callously in this purported character study of the effects of gambling. He’s completely unrecognizable at first. Perhaps Brunner is played by an actor who specializes in police detective roles. He asks Augie (Jay Mohr), a bookie with acid reflux disease, and his friend Murph (Grant Sullivan) about who might have murdered Wing Loh, a nothing bookie and former owner of the body washed ashore at the beginning. Then suddenly, as Brunner continues talking to Augie, holy crap! That’s not a character actor, that’s Kelsey Grammer! That reveal is far better than the sleight-of-hand tricks Walter, a failed magician, specializes in at tables of elderly people who are more impressed with the tricks than they should be. The casino that’s featured, which Walter works at, is unknown. It’s just a casino in Rydell’s limited imagination, a few set pieces where you have to climb stairs to get to some of the slot machines.
That casino is also where Carol Carver (Kim Basinger) spends her time. She’s a writer, but doesn’t do much writing, using it more as a cover to keep her husband Tom (Ray Liotta), a college professor, from pressing further. She tells him she’s writing at the coffee shop. Which coffee shop? Well, she can’t sit in the same one each day since it drives her crazy. But since that’s a cover, she can safely spend her time gambling away her family’s savings, pulling the slot machine arm numerous times, hoping for that glorious combination to come that will award her thousands of dollars.
Rydell gets one thing right here, and only one: As Carol pulls the slot machine arm in one scene, a woman at a machine one row across hits the jackpot and screams in excitement. Carol gets up to look at the woman, envious. I know that feeling. A recent trip to Vegas included some time at Hooter’s Casino, and one night, with me on one penny slot machine, and my dad next to me hoping for the same luck, a couple who had never visited Vegas before that night and were only there for that night, put $20 into their penny slot machine next to us. They had no clue how it worked, besides pushing buttons, and yet, within 5 minutes, they were up $240. Bastards.
Carol is deeply worried about the money she has lost and meets Walter, who wants to help her get her money back and teaches her blackjack and guess what? She wins and wins, but the next time she plays, she loses. But he’s still determined to help. He has ideas.
In this drab, bleak, desperate world, there’s also Clyde (Forest Whitaker), brother to star basketball point guard Godfrey (Nick Cannon), and a gambler too, namely in placing bets on sports, later his brother’s basketball games, even going so far at the threat of bodily harm to ask his brother to shave a few points off his games. It’s hard to fathom Whitaker being in this, but when Clyde cheers at Godfrey’s games and peps him up with talk about his future career in the NBA and that he’s Godfrey Snow, Whitaker is the only spark of life besides Grammer. But where there’s more desire to see Grammer, there’s less desire in watching Clyde’s sad story drag on.
Tim Roth is in this too as Victor, the oily second-in-command to Ivan, a powerful bookie not seen until the end (and played briefly by Rydell, too much confidence in himself), and Carla Gugino plays Veronica, whom Murph is in love with, but she rejects him because she learns from a friend she hasn’t seen for 12 years that Murph hurts people and broke her husband’s jaw a year ago. Really? She didn’t figure that out on her own, that part of the business? That friend simply appears just to convey that information, which doesn’t require much effort on the part of the actress playing her, nor from Tannen in thinking of something better for the scene, if Veronica ever had to find out for whatever reason. He’s written it just to create conflict where there doesn’t feel like there needs to be any. Later, Veronica claims that Murph takes people’s dreams away. She doesn’t understand. Murph may take people’s dreams away, but those people chose to put their dreams at risk, like Clyde and Walter, and Carol, if she ever had a dream.
And all this can be yours for an hour and 53 minutes! You can try to imagine Basinger as a writer. You can wonder why Tim Roth bothered. You can wish that Tannen and Rydell had the good sense to make changes to the script once they got this cast. Or you know what? Don’t even bother. Go to a casino and be among real gamblers, and watch their faces and their demeanors and their hopes and their dreams. You’ll get a lot more out of that experience than by watching this.