Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Croupier

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

CROUPIER

4/10

UK 1999
director : Mike Hodges
script : Paul Mayersberg
cinematography : Michael Garfath
editing : Les Healey
music : Simon Fisher-Turner
lead actors : Clive Owen, Gina McKee, Alex Kingston, Kate Hardie
91-94 minutes

There probably is a decent movie somewhere within Croupier, its just that Hodges and scriptwriter Mayersberg (the film is, unusually, presented as being by both of them) either lack the skills to bring it out or, worse, have higher aspirations.

When cash-strapped writer Jack Manfred (Owen), takes a croupier job at a middle-ranking London casino, the late hours imperil his relationship with live-in girlfriend Marion (McKee). It doesn’t help that his eye wanders towards both tough-cooking casino-colleague Bella (Hardie) and Jani (Kingston), a chic gambler who shares his South African background. When Janni suggests he join her scheme to rob the casino, straight-arrow Jack resists but his fictional alter ego Jake, has no such qualms

The first half is strong on the behind-the-scenes casino stuff: its a pleasure to observe Jack nimbly stack chips, deal cards and cope with difficult customers. Everything is in place for what we hope will be a twisty thriller of femmes fatales and David Mamet-type cons. While the second half makes some lame attempts at noir tensions, they’re only as background for a half-baked psychological character study. As Jack/Jakes identity fragments, the various subplots snarl into a ball of confusion. Clarity was never Hodges strong suit Get Carter, for all its strengths, makes an essentially straightforward story borderline incomprehensible and here its compounded by major script problems.

By making the hero a writer continually commenting on the action, the movie tries to get away with serving up some desperately thin characters trading truly awful dialogue. Marion: What am I to you? Jack: Youre my conscience. Later, she expresses surprise and mild displeasure that he’s decided to stop being a dyed-blond. Its just hair! he fumes.

The film-makers would presumably claim Croupier as representing Jacks flawed, egocentric consciousness, his view of the people around him as two-dimensional characters. Its a cheap trick to play the post-modernism card – but such license comes at a price. The payoff must be worthwhile, either dramatically or psychologically, and Croupier fails on both levels. Were a long way from the sustained observational depth of Paul Thomas Andersons Hard Eight, while Croupiers analysis of writing and gambling look pitifully weak alongside, say, Jonathan Rendalls harrowing quasi-novel Twelve Grand.

While the movie is full of perplexing gaps and inconsistencies (Marion appears to have left Jack for another bloke, then suddenly it turns out she hasnt) the final twenty minutes are plain laughable, with Jack somehow getting his book (I, Croupier) published anonymously. A hardback, its cover proclaims No.1 International Bestseller such a book being a global smash is implausible enough, but its doubly unlikely that it would (a) come out anonymously, and (b) reach bestseller status before UK hardback publication.

Whatever skills Hodges once had, meanwhile, seem to have deserted him since Carter. Croupier looks and feels drab and dated, with an amateur-hour editing lapse when Jack and insomniac Janni are in bed together and she reveals her money worries. Such shoddy work behind the camera places an unreasonable burden on Owen, as the only character who isn’t an insultingly underwritten cipher. The women come off particularly badly, with Kingstons strong work as Janni (she has a great moment when Jack approaches her and she looks as if he might either kiss her or hit her) criminally wasted. But Owen can’t overcome the scripts essential problem of how were supposed to react to Jack: is he just an uncaring louse? A self-obsessesed fantasist? Are we supposed to laugh at the ludicrous Curiosity-Killed-The-Cat hat he wears while writing?

We have to wonder if this Manfred (a reference to Manfred Mann?) is even any good as a writer. If his toneless, droning voiceover is any guide, the answer is no. So are we supposed to believe anything of what we see or hear? In the right hands, these questions might add to the intrigue here they’re just a smokescreen for Mayersberg and Hodges inadequacies. If they cant make a decent thriller, that’s no crime. But there’s so much pretension flying around that one suspects the pair consider themselves above the genre if so, that’s rich. Croupier is just hair.

20th July, 2001
(seen Jul-17-01, UGC Middlesbrough)

by Neil Young