Tethered to the standard multicharacter drama conventions that can be seen most nights on ABC, “Even Money” hardly delves beneath the surface of its moralistic overview of the sins and ramifications of gambling addiction. With several parallel tales reiterating the same point — that habitually betting past your risk point is sure to land you in trouble — pic’s primary interest is its varied ensemble and its telling illustration of the way careers rise and fall. Reportedly altered somewhat since its 2006 South by Southwest preem, pic is getting limited mid-May theatrical play that will lead directly to video slots.
Just a scan of the cast list reads like a chart of careers both hot (Nick Cannon, Forest Whitaker — who did this before his Oscar-winning “The Last King of Scotland”) and cold (Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito, Kelsey Grammer) and somewhat in-between (Ray Liotta, Tim Roth, Jay Mohr), while also serving as a reminder of the volatility of the film acting trade. The chance to meditate on the roller-coaster effects of fame provides a fine distraction from the pic’s bland dramatic threads, routinely overseen by director Mark Rydell (who himself once had quite a career trajectory).
Screenwriter Robert Tannen follows the rule book of the by now standard multiplot tube skein, establishing separate storylines and then gradually — and oh so mechanically — merging most of them by the third act. Novelist Carolyn (Basinger) is hooked on slot machines, lying to loyal husband Tom (Liotta) that she’s actually writing a book at a local Starbucks. Handyman Clyde (Whitaker) roots for little bro and college hoops star Godfrey (Cannon), but is heavily indebted on his past betting losses.
Det. Brunner (Grammer, complete with a cane and a badly applied prosthetic nose) has in his sights the evil and wily bookie Victor (Roth), who seems to have his claws in everybody in town. Augie (Mohr), a small-time and more vulnerable version of rival Victor, senses that business is about to take off. Magician Walter (DeVito) spends his time amusing casino mavens with his tricks, until he starts befriending Carolyn.
If Tannen had taken a cue from the exchange of emotions and subtext between brothers Clyde and Godfrey, there might have been something more organic and surprising about the characters and events in “Even Money.” But with little exception, the course is relentlessly and monotonously downward, as if the characters were charted on a graph rather than allowed to have lives of their own.
Even those folks observing the hopeless gamblers from the outside, such as Tom or nurse Veronica (Carla Gugino), are little more than moral points on a compass. Forced to play’s Tom’s Mr. Stability to Basinger’s Ms. Addict, Liotta is starkly limited by the script, an issue that applies to the ensemble up and down the line.
Whitaker nearly does break through his role’s schematic boundaries, and works up considerably warm chemistry with the charismatic Cannon. Basinger literally sweats through a thankless role, while Roth, mired in typecasting, falls back on his only option, which is to mug.
In one of his better perfs to date, Mohr suggests the intense pressures felt from a young bookie’s perspective. DeVito (also a producer) seems to be enjoying himself, even if he feels like a refugee from a David Mamet film. Grammer’s noirish gumshoe act similarly seems — despite a last-minute twist — to belong in another film.
For a film that should be swimming in nocturnal urban stench and fateful atmospherics, Rydell (with lenser Robbie Greenberg) creates little mood beyond the most conventional sort. Standard-issue directorial approach is perfectly in keeping with a script whose natural berth is on the tube.