It is official, Jeff Probst’s “Finder’s Fee” won the Golden Space Needle Award (Best Film) at the Seattle International Film Festival. Yes, that Jeff Probst, the host of the inanely popular TV series “Survivor.” I won’t hold it against him. Probst had this film in the works a few years before there were 30 million people watching him every week. “Finder’s Fee” was a labor of love for him. Probst manage to get every actor he wanted. They all agreed to take pay cuts for this very low budget film. That is quite commendable. It is incredibly tough to get a film made, even tougher to make the exact film you want to. Probst did that. “Finder’s Fee” is a capably made film. However it is not best film material, it shouldn’t even have made the top five.
“Finder’s Fee” has a simple but intriguing plot. Tepper (Erik Palladino, “E.R.”) finds a lost wallet containing a winning lottery ticket worth six million dollars. He calls a phone number found inside the wallet. He leaves his number and address on an answering machine owned by “Victor”. (His phone number is fine, but it seems like a really stupid idea to give your home address to stranger in New York City.) Tepper, who plays the lotto every week, searches the wallet more thoroughly and finds what is of course the winning numbers. Tepper, a nice guy, now has a very large moral dilemma. Palladino plays Tepper excessively nervous, there is no doubt that this is a tense situation, but almost everything he does feels false.
Tonight also happens to be the six-month point in a separation from his girlfriend Carla. She has given him an ultimatum and unbeknownst to her he plans on proposing later on that night. First he has to play poker with his friends. Again this rings false. For such an important night in his life, you think he could put off playing poker for a week.
His poker buddies; Quigley (Ryan Reynolds) is a divorced father who is in some serious debt. Bolan (Dash Mihok) is the owner of a camp for misfortunate children and a self-help devotee. These two guys are thinly drawn characters and are mainly here for the others to bounce lines off of. Then there is Fishman (Matthew Lillard), a “serious” gambler, he is in major trouble with a bookie. It doesn’t make sense for him to playing with these grade school level amateurs, as he’s not going to win any real money off them. Lillard plays the same character that he has been playing since “Scream”, a blabbermouth chimpanzee on crack. He never shuts up and he can’t sit still.
These guys are all supposed to be great friends past the poker buddy thing, but they sure don’t act like it. They don’t talk or act like friends. They hardly seem to like each other at all. Their conversations consist of a mediocre writer attempting witty dialogue.
After a talk with the shady Fishman, Tepper decides to throw the wallet away and forget the matter. He keeps the winning ticket unknown to the rest of the group. However, soon into their poker game Avery Johnson the wallet’s owner shows up at the door. (Avery is played by James Earl Jones, who adds some well needed credibility to the cast.) Tepper slips a losing ticket into the wallet and returns it to its rightful owner. He then tries unsuccessfully to hurry Avery back out of his apartment, but Avery wants to stay and play a little poker with the boys. When it seems that Tepper is finally going to get Avery to leave, the police show up and lock-down the building. (Robert Forrester is great in his bit role as a tough NYC cop.) So what else is there for these guys to do but play poker? Which they never do, they sit around the table chatting and complaining about the games, but they never finish an entire one.
Everything in this script is predictable. I was always one step ahead of the story and predicted every little plot turn minutes before they happened. (Example; the lotto ticket ending up in the poker pot.) The film plays slow. You are continuously waiting for the story to unravel, maybe even surprise you, but the surprises never comes. It is a major struggle for Probst to grow some tension. There are a few moments that slightly work your nerves, but most of it is just tedious. The film’s final twist is completely obvious, a bit contrived and if you contemplate it for too long it falls apart. (It is not the same kind of twist that “The Sixth Sense” or the “Usual Suspects” had. A twist that makes even more sense after repeat viewings.) Its only purpose is to give the audience one final gasp. It only left me feeling cheated.
The entire film takes place in one apartment, with only nine people showing up on screen. “Finder’s Fee” would have worked better as a stage play. The film is worth watching for a good subdued performance from James Earl Jones. Most will watch it as a curiosity piece from the now world famous Jeff Probst. It will be interesting to see if Probst can outlive “Survivor”, and turn filmmaking into a full time career.