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Clive Owen wants to buy a vowel.

1998, LittleBird Film and Video
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"Croupier" could've been one of the classiest films of the year.

Its plot is simple enough: Unemployed novelist Jack Manfred (woodenly played by Clive Owen) takes a job in a London casino as a croupier/dealer at the behest of his father. His life in the seedy underground of England puts a strain on his healthy relationship with his stable girlfriend while exposing him to danger and excitement, all of which he handles with style and aplomb; our hero is not your ordinary wuss-bag intellectual of a writer. His Hemingway-esque embrace of life and badass groove make him a force to be feared on and off of the casino floor, and as he swims through the ocean of sleaze, money and intrigue, he's taking notes for his first big book, the hilariously titled "I, Croupier."

To its credit, "Croupier" is a stylish-looking and professionally-directed film. Its sets and shots are precise as a Swiss clock, and the Golden Lion casino (home to most of the film's action) is small but lush — a perfect setting for the heart of "Croupier's" development. Moreover, the roulette wheel (the film's visual anchor and principle metaphor) is gorgeous, and worth the lingering slo-mo shots lavished upon it.

However, much about "Croupier" is unintentionally funny. Jack Manfred's incessant narration is this film's very own Jar-Jar Binks — it's a glaring, hilarious weakness that a better director would've immediately beaten out of the movie. The narration is thoughtful, appropriate and restrained in the same way that Charlie Chan films were a paragon of racial sensitivity, that "Godfather III" was a perfect ending to the trilogy, and that "Phantom Menace" was worth the wait.

At times, the narration seems to actually compete with the on-screen dialogue for our attention, to the point where it would seem logical for Jack or one of the other characters to yell "shut up!" at the endlessly droning play-by-play infesting the film's soundtrack.

This is tragic enough. But where the film really goes wrong is by falling into its own intellectual trap. At the film's outset, Jack gets offered a book idea by a sleaze-bag publisher — he should write a book about soccer culture, making sure to really play up the sex and violence. Jack is an artist, of course, and he inwardly sneers at the idea, even as his life (and, sadly for us, our film) takes exactly that route, with needless fistfights, naked boobies and big stacks of money subbing in for the thoughtful plot development the film initially promises.

What's amazing about "Croupier" is how close it comes to being good (or great) without pulling it off. Its plot, with its underworld vs. real world dynamic and art vs. life subtext, is promising. Its hamfisted narration and "life of the mind" motifs are almost, but not quite, legitimately funny. But "Croupier" embraces neither the zany nor the sublime, and achieves neither as a result.

And when "Croupier" goes into Jack's writing routine, it goes over the top. Does it do so knowingly? That's not clear. What is clear is that a certain number of special things have to be done before a pro can really get down to the business of writing a novel. The routine goes something like this:

1. First, cue the rain. It's easier to write when it's raining — it's an old cliche that professional writers tend to have their own cloud-seeding planes to ensure the perfect atmosphere for bangin' out tomorrow's classics.

2. Put on your writing hat. How can you write if you don't have a black 1950s cool-guy hat? It's nigh impossible. Fedoras work best, but pork-pies and bowlers are both acceptable. Not acceptable: baseball caps, berets (poets excepted) and magic wizard caps with aluminum foil stars.

3. Light up your writer's cigarette. Nicotine fuels the "serious cells" in our brains that let real writers get down to it, whatever that "it" may be.

It's vexing that "Croupier" doesn't seem to understand that writers, when they're doing their thing, aren't generally worried about putting on a special hat and smoking a special cigarette to impress those around them. Real writers save the posturing and puffery for print, thank you very much — they don't tend to have time for a special wardrobe and atmospheric condition.

Like "Pi" and "Crash," "Croupier" seems specially designed as a trap to expose intellectual poseurs for the easily-misled blowhards they actually are. It touches on some real themes, like the motivation that fuels gamblers (in the broadest sense of the term) and the dichotomy between making art and living life. However, it fails to dig deep enough, and instead leaves us gasping for substance as the constantly suave Jack makes yet another effortless play for a woman who is just gasping for his strong, magical touch.

There's no doubt that "Croupier" had the potential to be a good film. Tragically, however, it commits the biggest mistake a writer can make: it tells where it should show, and spells out what should be gently traced beneath the surface of the action. In film or print, this is a hard flaw to forgive.

Filmfodder Grade: D

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