Breaking the Bank at Monte Carlo 

Facing long odds and a low budget, Croupier comes out a winner

The lottery is a tax on the stupid. Slot machines steal food from babies. I feel like puking after five minutes of sitting next to these beeping electronic shoals of coin-gobbling video keno machines that lure suckers onto the rocks with three-note Hallelujah siren toots of deeeee-doo-dee-doo.

I just can’t stand them. I’ve eaten a reindeer sandwich out of a vending machine before (how’s that for taking a gamble?), but in my whole life I’ve probably never put a grand total of a dollar into any machine that wasn’t squirting out sodee pop, food or little foil sachets of erotic massage oil. OK, and the occasional video game. The fact that so people are willing to stand transfixed and get robbed by obnoxious beeping black boxes just blows my mind. Civilized card games aside, most games of chance are open sewers of long odds. You’re probably more likely to get killed by lightning this year than you are to win the Powerball.

Still, someone has to win, don’t they? Sooner or later, someone fires a two-bit silver arrow through the tiny chink in the corner tavern Shake-a-Day’s statistical armor. Someone yells “Yahtzee!” to the tune of twenty skadillion dollars on a two-dollar lottery ticket. Someone pulls the magic pop top and wins a Coca-Cola Camaro or a trip to Hawaii. The cow’s going to crap somewhere; just hope you bought the lucky square yard of pasture in the cowflop bingo game. With terrible certainty, the avuncular shadow of Ed McMahon must somehow darken someone’s door with every new Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes.

That hope against hope—that one of those patches of scratch-off silver resin is will one day reveal the Really Big Break—is what makes me love humanity. Loathe it, too. Hope is just one of those human things. It reconciles us with the longest possible odds and inoculates us against the incalculable unlikelihood of damn near everything—when you really think about it. There are more little no-see-ums in one little patch of Arctic tundra than there are mammals in all of North America. Just think how unlikely it is to be human at all, sitting there, sipping coffee, knowing anybody. What are the odds that none of this could have happened? Much better.

But if you think I’m cynical about people and their eagerness to mortgage hope against the staggering interest on ignorance, rest assured that The Croupier makes me look like Pollyanna in comparison. Director Mike Hodges makes some pretty hard observations about human nature by turning loose a shark in the form of a suave, professional casino dealer, circling a school of suckers an divesting them of their money one by one. It’s the movie Rounders should have been. It is excellent.

Jack Manfred (Clive Owen) is a writer faced with the choice of writing sports drama potboilers to get by or taking the casino job his father arranges for him. He’s a skilled croupier, smart in a tuxedo and right at home on the blackjack tables and roulette wheels, and with “conjuror’s hands” that summon the cards to fleece the rich, gambling-addicted “punters” (love that British stuff) at his middle-of-the-road London casino. He sticks with the job to gain the experience he needs to write his book ( an anonymous exposé of the gambling life, I, Croupier), but the longer he stays with it the more he sees his personality is dividing sharply between good ol’ Jack and the autobiographical character of Jake.

Jack is an unmotivated but basically upright guy who doesn’t gamble on his own and maintains a professional distance between himself, his job and the punters. Jake is Jack without the employee handbook, hawk-eyeing not only the punters for weak spots but his co-workers and bosses as well. He becomes the dutiful personification of chance, pitilessly dispensing Lady Luck’s cruel brand of justice. That is, until he masters the art of the croupier so completely that he can deal the kind of hand he wants to whomever he wants and make it look like chance. Then he’s not merely cheating—he’s making himself into the Grand Architect of the gambler’s universe. But he never relaxes the rules for his own personal gain. He only deals to see others lose.

There’s a chilling climate of moral ambiguity in Croupier. Jack as himself refers to his live-in girlfriend Marion (Gina McKee) as his “conscience,” but as Jake he’s left rudderless to navigate the twin hazards of Bella (Kate Hardie), a tough-case fellow casino worker, and Jani (Alex Kingston), an exotic South African high-roller. The characters all inhabit a paranoiac, hostile world centered around the casino, and the few simple rules (No gambling, even outside the casino; no friendships with other croupiers and absolutely no fraternization with the casino’s female employees) breed suspicion and conspiracy like a damp corner breeds mold and mildew.

Croupier has been called the sleeper hit of the year, and for good reason. It’s sharp and snappy on virtually no budget. The direction is solid and assured (curiously, Mike Hodges’ biggest American success so far has been 1980’s Flash Gordon!), the acting superb from a largely unknown cast. All the basic ingredients of sleeperdom, with and engaging plot and a few clever surprises folded in along the way.

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