You can't call Mike Hodges an egotist. In a break with industry custom, the British director credits his latest offering, "Croupier," as "A Mike Hodges and Paul Mayersberg Film," affording the contribution of screenwriter Mayersberg equal creative weight.
The move is wholly appropriate: "Croupier" is (or at least purports to be) a story about writing, specifically the internal struggle of amateur novelist Jack Manfred (Clive Owen) to find a subject that will entrench him atop the best-seller list.
Assigned to knock off a quick, exploitative story about professional soccer, Jack suffers a serious case of writer's block until he hits on an idea that's closer to his own experience: He'll instead immortalize the malformed personalities and shifty deals he witnesses in his regular job as a casino croupier.
Though Jack's parallel lives as a solitary wordsmith and a glamorous gamesmaster might seem polar opposites, both contribute equally to his icy detachment. It's no gamble to guess which of his roles will occupy the most screen time: No matter how dearly Hodges may value Mayersberg, the writing process just isn't much fun to watch. So for every obligatory scene we're given of Jack slaving at his typewriter, we see at least three in which his tuxedo-clad frame stands before an assortment of desperate, chance-addicted customers. Soon he's even part of a criminal plot that revolves around the shady Jani (Alex Kingston), a South African with deadly friends and massive debts.
The highly personal tale is told in voice-over, though it's a telling detail that our narrator is aloof enough to even refer to himself in the third person. Good-looking, disdainful and self-centered, Jack is an initially engaging character whose blithe cynicism gradually approaches foolishness. Staring straight into the camera as his long-suffering girlfriend, Marion (Gina McKee), attempts to rouse his dying emotions, he frequently appears to have stepped out of an Obsession for Men commercial and onto the big screen.
Thank goodness "Croupier" is in on the gag. As the exasperated Marion claims, Jack's role as a card-counting manipulator is turning him into a caricature: the cold "Jake" who's the antihero of his novel.
For his latest step in a career that's ranged from the estimable Get Carter to the abominable Flash Gordon, Hodges holds his own cards close to his vest. The film's look is economical and unpretentious, making a few arty touches -- like a series of jump cuts that symbolize Jack's fractured mentality -- all the more effective.
At just over 90 minutes, "Croupier" doesn't attempt to compensate for its finite perception with bloat. It does, however, veer too far from another disturbing trend, the open-ended denouement. No fan of ambiguity, Mayersberg attempts to tie up every loose end in his script, even trivial ones no reasonable viewer would require resolved. He should have followed the advice of his odds-weighing protagonist and walked away from the table while he was still winning.