I know a lot of people like the ones that appears in Mike Hodges’ Croupier, a movie about a novelist who takes a job as a casino dealer (or croupier) when he runs out of money. The people in Croupier are losers. There’s really no other way to describe them. Everyone is a loser in one form or another, every single one of them beaten by the house. What’s worst, they’re blind losers. They’ve forgotten the wisest advice when it comes to gambling: “The house always wins.” I learned this long ago when I stopped gambling and betting on sports altogether. That was about 6 years ago, and since then I haven’t placed a bet on anything since, no matter how minor. Why? Because the house always wins; the bookie always wins; and it’s only the blind fools who continue to play, hoping against hope that they’ll somehow buck the odds, never realizing the simple fact that the reason casinos remain open and get richer is because you can’t beat the house.
Croupier stars Clive Owen as Jack Manfred, a novelist with a background in casino dealing. People might know Owen from his BMW mini-movies/commercials where Owens plays a nameless Driver (of a BMW, of course). Owen’s Jack is seeking the proverbial great novel but of course it’s not easy to be a struggling novelist, even when you’re shacking up with a girlfriend who has given up everything to devote herself to your dream.
Jack is forced to get a job at a London casino, where his past as a card shark ensures his employment. Jack was born to a gambler and Jack has learned his father’s skills, only Jack refuses to gamble, on anything — or so he says. Everything seems to be going fine and Jack is getting material for his book, until a woman begins to manipulate her way into Jack’s life, bringing a host of problems along with her. Just who is playing who here?
If there is one thing that can be said about Croupier it’s that the film is very tight, with all unnecessary baggage snipped away in editing, and the result is a movie that moves at a brisk, entertaining pace. Owen does narration as Jack, talking to the audience as if he’s reading passages from his unfinished novel. The movie takes place almost exclusively at night and there is an edge here, a gritty, down-and-dirty feel to the whole film despite all the bright lights and artificial luxuries of the casino scenes.
Director Hodges and writer Paul Mayersberg must know a thing or two about the casino business and the art of gambling because the screenplay is very smart and the movie gives excellent insights into the world of addicted gamblers and the minds of the croupiers who takes their money. After a while, the disease that both factions suffer begans to get blurry, as they’re both hopelessly addicted to trying to beat the other. After a while, the money no longer matters — it’s all about the idea of beating the house — or the house beating you.
The life of a gambler is pathetic, and the movie shows no mercy towards them. This isn’t to say the movie is mean or crass, it’s just true. At one point Jack tests out a private theory by cheating the casino and paying out to a hopelessly addicted gambler even though the man loses; Jack wants to see if the man will learn his lesson and take the money and run, but as Jack predicted, the man simply goes to another table and continues gambling. That, in essence, is what happens to everyone in Croupier. They can’t help themselves. They must try to buck the system, always ignoring the undeniable fact that the house always wins.
As Jack, Owen is very good. He’s tall, dark, handsome, and smooth as the croupier of the title. But Jack has a self-destructive streak. He claims to never gamble, but when all is said and done, he realizes that he was wrong, and that every time he says “I don’t gamble” he was deluding himself. Like the rest of the cast, he can’t help himself. He commits the ultimate gamble and loses — big time. Gina McKee plays Marion, Jack’s hopelessly devoted girlfriend, who can’t seem to make herself leave him. Even when she does, she always comes back. Like the gamblers at the casino, she’s addicted to Jack, and no matter how much she loses, or how much the croupier (Jack) takes and takes from her, she keeps coming back for more. It’s no longer about choice for her, it’s all about instinct, the blind faith in believing that “this time I’ll win.”
Various other characters show up in Jack’s life. A cheat who doesn’t like being caught; a female card shark who is more than she seems; Jack’s father, who continues to lie and cheat his way through life and to his son because he simply doesn’t know how to act any other way. They’re all peripheral characters, but every single one of them belongs in Croupier because, in one form or another, they’re hopelessly addicted to gambling.
Money is one way to gamble, but as Croupier shows, there’s more than one way to gamble away your life.
Mike Hodges (director) / Paul Mayersberg (screenplay)
CAST: Clive Owen …. Jack Manfred
Nick Reding …. Giles Cremorne
Nicholas Ball …. Jack Snr.
Alexander Morton …. David Reynolds