A one-act stage play uneasily disguised as a movie, “Finder’s Fee” maintains a poker face about its ultimate intentions and plot turns until the final frame. There’s an evident discipline about this, as well as tyro writer-director Jeff Probst’s self-assignment to film on a single set and hardly ever stray outside the New York apartment setting while avoiding visual suffocation. This twisty movie has reasonably good odds of snaring domestic distribution and offshore cable play after winning, to decidedly mixed reaction, best film prize at Seattle fest.
The narrative is one of those curlicue creatures that compels the viewer to mentally rewind what he has just viewed. At the same time we’re reassessing the central action involving a poker game and a con job circulating around the table, we’re also wondering how Probst, now one of TV’s most recognizable faces as the host of the first two seasons of “Survivor,” was able to find the time to develop, write and direct his first movie. Even though his project carries the strong whiff of an industry calling card, Probst’s drama maintains rigorous focus on its theme, indicating he may have more than just exotic “Survivor” trips in his future.
Early moments don’t indicate the degree to which the script is stage-bound, nor the ultimately overwhelming sense that it would be a far more congealed experience within the confines and conventions of a theater. On a rainy Gotham night, street artist Tepper (Erik Palladino) finds a wallet on the sidewalk near his apartment building. Tepper is on the verge of popping the question to g.f. Carla (Carly Pope) — but only after he hosts a night of poker with his buddies.
He phones a number he finds on a note in the wallet, which belongs to one Avery Phillips, and reports it found. But then, just before Fishman (Matthew Lillard), the group’s inveterate gambler, arrives, Tepper discovers that a lottery ticket also inside the wallet has this week’s winning numbers worth $6 million. In the first of several touches that rings more of greasepaint than celluloid, Tepper is barely able to conceal the winning ticket from Fishman, who suffers from truly irritating diarrhea of the mouth. Fishman’s verbal spew stops only with the entry of bitter divorcee Quigley (Ryan Reynolds) and nice guy Bolan (Dash Mihok), with a fifth player MIA. A fifth is quickly found, as Avery (James Earl Jones) comes by after a call from Tepper.
Probst’s camera and Brian Berdan’s editing are too emphatic on showing the suspicious glances increasingly traded between Tepper and Avery, but they also serve to build some strong tension as Tepper’s ethical crisis — to keep the ticket or give it to its rightful owner — seems to become intractable. Actors Palladino, who puts as tight a clamp on Tepper’s emotions as he can, and Jones, who uses his bulging, penetrating eyes as a furtive weapon, make this face-off as cinematic as it can be under the contained circumstances.
What remains most awkward about “Finder’s Fee,” beyond certain poker details that will make card players howl in horror, are how the other characters and actors integrate (or not) into this growing face-off: Lillard, an actor who seems to have no idea when enough is enough, is by far the biggest problem, and Mihok’s Bolan and Reynolds’ Quigley feel more or less superfluous, or worse, like mechanisms to turn the plot in certain directions.
The dramatic low point, from which pic happily extracts itself, is Pope’s unconvincing Carla delivering a “Dear John” speech into Tepper’s door buzzer speaker. And though Robert Forster, as usual, brings thorough conviction to the action as a weary street cop, his intrusion is as artificial as the larger device (a police-imposed lockdown of the building for a suspect search) that compels the main characters to stay in Tepper’s digs.
The physical space, filled to the brim by designer Tink and lit by d.p. Francis Kenny, becomes an effective, additional character in this Seattle-hatched, British Columbia-shot production.