A Good Bet

Even Money
Running Time 108 minutes
Directed by Mark Rydell
Written by Robert Tannen
Starring Kim Basinger, Ray Liotta, Forest Whitaker

Small wonder that Even Money is the most rewarding new film of the week. For one thing, it is directed by Mark Rydell, a real director instead of a hack. From The Reivers and Jeremiah Johnson to The Rose and On Golden Pond, the intelligence of Mr Rydell’s subject matter, the intense control of every aspect of his projects (from script to camera work), and the personalized intuition and compassion with which he inspires confidence in his actors have added up to an impressive body of work. Even Money is a cautionary tale about gambling addiction. The message is: “Never risk what you can’t afford to lose, because eventually everyone wants more.” The style is raw grit. The result is a shock to the system that leaves you numb.

Set not in Vegas but in any town in America where gambling is legal and souls go unprotected, the fates of nine people become interwoven in a web of intrigue, desperation and death. Kim Basinger, less ravishing than usual with dishwatery brown hair but no less riveting, is Carol, a housewife and novelist with writer’s block who pretends that she’s always doing her writing at Starbucks. Ray Liotta is her loyal, devoted husband Tom, a teacher who is ravaged to the core when he finds out she’s gambled away the family savings and their 13-year-old daughter’s college fund. Forest Whitaker is Clyde Snow, a plumber-handyman who talks his kid brother Godfrey into throwing a championship basketball game so he can pay back the gambling debt he owes to the vicious mobster named Victor (Tim Roth), who also controls the lives of two bookies named Augie and Murph (Jay Mohr and Grant Sullivan) and a crooked detective (an unrecognizable Kelsey Grammer, with Nicole Kidman’s plastic nose from The Hours). Factor in Murph’s innocent, honest girlfriend (Carla Gugino) and a has-been magician (Danny DeVito) who works the gaming tables for tips and talks Carol into betting her last dime to save her marriage and family, and you have a poison stew. And murder is the dessert.

Great acting informs the conflicted lives in Even Money. The anxieties are universal (This could happen to me!) and director Rydell balances every move on the head of a pin. While each vignette contributes to the whole puzzle, the characters’ shared obsession leads to such dark corners of the mind that your heart ends up in your throat and Mr. Rydell never lets go. Everything depends on the approaching game, and only one person can change the odds. Then the snafu, followed by a climax that is nothing less than electrifying.

Cleverly plotted, suspensefully structured, professionally acted and tightly written (Robert Tannen’s debut script is doubly impressive), Even Money shows what can happen when people are willing to screw up their lives for excitement and danger, risking everything for the next jackpot. It’s one of the best movies about gambling fever since California Split.

A Good Bet