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`Money' gambles with a cynical message

Self-destructive characters and low-life bookies come together to learn harsh life lessons -- and in Las Vegas of all places.

May 18, 2007|Ed Gonzalez | Special to The Times

"Crash," that execrable traffic jam of histrionic metaphor and presumptuous race commentary, was about as real as "Star Wars," but after its Oscar hosannas, an attack of the clones was inevitable. One of the first facsimiles out of the gate, Mark Rydell's "Even Money" is the most shameless, not least of which because it counts "Crash's" Bob Yari as one of its producers. The film's subject is not race but gambling, yet the cynical message is the same: We're all pathetic.

"Even Money's" only sense of decorum is that no one refers to the corpse that flops around in the opening scene's gloomy boardwalk water as a stereotypical euphemism. The film may go light on metaphor and race baiting, but the story is scarcely grounded in the mechanics of real-world expression.

All plot-contrivance-by-committee, "Even Money" begins with a blatant recapitulation of "Crash's" hand-wringing narration about emotionless Angelenos slamming into each other just to make a connection, though the lecture here is more abstract -- some junk about discovering people's dreams to learn the truth about them. But though it asks audiences to "work backward" to arrive at such understanding, the film does the opposite by tracing the self-destruction of its characters in an entirely linear fashion.

Thinner than Shrinky Dinks, these dopes include a washed-up magician (Danny DeVito), a desperate writer (Kim Basinger) who spends her family's nest egg on slot machines, a sad-sack handyman (Forest Whitaker) who risks the future of his basketball-playing brother (Nick Cannon) on a series of bets, and a community of bookies volleying for big-dog status or trying to leave the business behind.

Their trajectories appear to have been charted on a dry-erase board, and Rydell buys time until the inevitable circus act that will bring all of them together by tritely illustrating the dangers gambling has on people's lives. Take Carolyn (Basinger), for example, who is too busy entertaining one of Walter's (DeVito) get-rich-quick schemes to come home to tend to her daughter's infected nipple after the brat gets it pierced.

Rydell props his characters like dominos against a Las Vegas backdrop but deliberately and uninterestingly skirts specifics so as not to compromise the story's it-could-happen-anywhere vibe.

Among other shortcomings, judging from the inexplicable homoerotic subtext that colors the relationships among the story's bookies, as well as the one played by Grant Sullivan hilariously justifying his line of work by saying he gives people dreams, the filmmakers' concept of nuance is as dubious as their sense of compassion.

At least the film isn't as rash and patronizing as "Crash," which could have benefited from the gifts of Tim Roth, who doesn't take the material very seriously. He chews a medium-rare steak with the same voraciousness he munches on the scenery, nervously breaking an incriminating CD with only one hand. This wild gesture becomes symbolic of the crushing effect the film has on its audience.

"Even Money." MPAA rating: R for language, violence and brief sexuality. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes. Exclusively at Pacific's Arclight, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd. (at Ivar Avenue), (323) 464-4226; AMC Century City 15, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd. (inside Westfield mall), (310) 289-4AMC; Landmark's NuWilshire, 1314 Wilshire Blvd. at Euclid, Santa Monica, (310) 281-8223.

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