Croupier cashes in

Rating: NNNNNCroupier is a classic instance of a film the distributors had no idea how to market. It's a tiny.

Rating: NNNNN

Croupier is a classic instance of a film the distributors had no idea how to market. It’s a tiny picture with an unsympathetic lead and a peculiar milieu, the snooty world of England’s private casinos.

So, two years after it was completed, it’s been sneaking out in various cities across North America.

I was surprised when I saw that it’s credited to director Mike Hodges, who’s been such an infrequent filmmaker over the years that I assumed they meant someone else with the same name — maybe a nephew. Surely, the director of Get Carter and Flash Gordon couldn’t still be making movies.

Blocked writer

Well, it turns out that Hodges, at 68, is still working, although this is his first feature in almost a decade.

The film tells the story of a blocked writer, Jack (Clive Owen), who decides to support himself by returning to casinos as a dealer, a job he trained for in younger days. Croupier is less a drama than a meditation on the creative process. Loaded with voice-over explication, it’s one of the few films that really needs it, as Jack’s narration begins to move back and forth between the film’s reality and the book he’s writing about the casino.

I suspect that one of the reasons Croupier’s had such superb reviews is that Jack is a passive observer, essentially a critic of his life rather than its inhabitant. It’s hard to think of another film where the protagonist does less to drive the story. It’s also about three dozen IQ points higher than anything else in theatres right now, which doesn’t hurt.

Startlingly formalist

Croupier is a startlingly formalist construct from the veteran director. Take a look, for example, at the way Hodges uses mirrors in the casino scenes. He’s been much more casual in the past — Flash Gordon is the goofiest of the early-80s space operas.

The film also belongs to its screenwriter, Paul Mayersberg, who is best known as the pen behind several of Nicolas Roeg’s most dazzling confusions, particularly Eureka and The Man Who Fell To Earth, and who was one of several writers on Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. He’s had a sporadic career as a writer-director of films so obscure (Captive, anyone?) they aren’t even available on video. If you don’t see Mayersberg’s films in their brief surfacings on the festival circuit, you may never see them.

Croupier is an interesting look at an unusual milieu. And it’s the first film where the point of view is that of a frontline soldier in the casino’s war with the suckers, a character who not only doesn’t gamble but views everyone in his world with a fair degree of contempt.

Inscrutable charisma

The cast is good throughout, but Clive Owen deserves to be singled out. He carries the film on his shoulders, undergoes a physical transformation from punk-haired layabout to slick-haired smoothie and has a kind of inscrutable charisma that’s exactly what the character demands.

If Owen had more star quality, he’d be miscast as just a dealer. It would be like casting Jessica Lange as a mousy librarian.

Owen’s achievement is that his endless patter — whether artistic angst about his book or priggish aversion to gambling — convinces us utterly of the character’s reality, and that convinces us about the world he moves through. I’ve never been in an English casino before, but after seeing Croupier, I feel I have.

CROUPIER, directed by Mike Hodges, written by Paul Mayersberg, produced by Jonathan Cavendish and Christine Ruppert, with Clive Owen, Gina McKee, Alex Kingston and Kate Hardie. 89 minutes. An Arte/Film Four International production. A Blackwatch release. Opens Friday (August 18). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 67. Rating: NNNN

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