By Matt Singer
[Photo: Left, “Even Money,” Yari Film Group, 2007; below, “Severance,” Magnolia Pictures, 2007]
Per the opening credits as well as the official poster, “Even Money” is “A Mark Rydell Production” of “A Film by Mark Rydell.” So does that mean he’s doubly to blame for this overblown mess of ham(my acting) and cheese(y dialogue)?
“Even Money” is a drama in the mould of “Crash,” in that it presents a very serious topic in this case, gambling, in all its addictive and destructive forms and tries so hard to be important it forgets to be engrossing. It features a lot of good actors, including Kim Basinger, Ray Liotta and Forest Whitaker but few good characters. The actors do a lot of screaming and cursing and crying and fighting, but the characters just sort of sit there at a remove from all the extravagant performances.
Take the characters played by Basinger and Liotta. They’re a married couple, he a professor of literature, she a writer who claims she’s working at the local coffee shop when she’s really at the casino, blowing the family’s life savings. The two have several high-tension on-camera dustups, including one in front of a fireplace where Basinger melodramatically shudders and gasps “I’m an addict!” But they never seem like an actual couple, even one with marital difficulties, except maybe the one scene where Basinger directly addresses Liotta’s penis.
Like “Crash,” the plot follows several loosely related storylines. Nick Cannon is a basketball star whose older brother (Whitaker) is heavily in debt to his bookies (Jay Mohr and Grant Sullivan), who are feuding with a more powerful bookie played by Tim Roth. Roth’s character is being investigated by a crippled cop (Kelsey Grammer in a hideous fake nose), and bothered by a washed-up magician (Danny DeVito). Only Whitaker, appropriately tragic as a born loser, gives something resembling a third dimension to his part.
Even more frustratingly, the narrative hinges on a series of dubious coincidences. Sullivan’s character’s girlfriend is oblivious to his activities until she bumps into an old friend she hasn’t seen in 12 years. The old friend drops a blunt (and incredibly convenient) bombshell on the order of: “Hey, your boyfriend broke my husband’s jaw! Nice seeing you again for the first time in over a decade!”
Some elements are totally unbelievable: no police force would let a cop as severely impaired as Grammer’s do anything more physically demanding than a desk job. Other times, the characters are just too damn stupid: Liotta’s character is shocked to learn that Basinger’s has completely drained their finances, after he finally grows suspicious and takes a look their recent bank statements. Doesn’t this guy even glance at the screen when he goes to the ATM?
What “Even Money” ultimately needs is someone like Robert Downey Jr., who understands addiction and could bring to the piece a much needed sense of reality. Producer/director Mark Rydell, who has made just six movies since he was nominated for an Oscar for directing “On Golden Pond” in 1981, was so proud of the movie he put his name on it twice, but he should have spent a little less time crafting the film’s color palette (the rich cinematography is “Even Money”‘s only flawless aspect) and more time crafting the film’s emotional one.
“Severance” is to “Hostel” as “Shaun of the Dead” is to “Night of the Living Dead.” As such, it’s yet another pun-intended stab at combining scares and laughs with mixed results. I’m always amazed by how often filmmakers try to marry these two antithetical concepts. As genres go, horror and comedy aren’t peanut butter and jelly; they’re not even peanut butter and marshmallow fluff. Terror and joy are at such odds, they don’t make very good bedfellows, even in a movie as good as “Shaun of the Dead,” which is funny at first, and scary at the end, but rarely both at the same time. In his recent appearance on KCRW’s “The Treatment,” “Shaun” director Edgar Wright even admitted that, successful as his film is, it doesn’t really mesh the gags (as in laughing) with the gags (as in choking as you gorge yourself on human flesh).
“Severance” doesn’t really either, which is not to say that it doesn’t have individual moments that are very funny, as well as moments that are very scary. Its quite superb marketing campaign makes it look like a slasher set in a post-Gervais office, but that’s not entirely accurate. In fact, it follows a group of co-workers on a team-building weekend at a remote cabin (in horror movies, cabins are always remote) somewhere in the menacingly wooded foothills of Eastern Europe. Unfortunately for the team, which includes Danny Dyer, Laura Harris and Toby Stephens, they find themselves at the mercy of a brutal serial killer who stalks them and murders them one by one.
Your appreciation of the movie will vary based on your tolerance/enjoyment of torture-vacationer-slashers in the “Turistas”-“House of 1,000 Corpses” vein. As with “Shaun,” this is more genre reconstruction than deconstruction: you point out some hackneyed scare tactics, then you use them anyway in a particularly aggressive manner. So there is a good deal of gore, killings, mutilations, torture, carnage, explosions, and in at least one case, beheading (to some, I may have just made this film sound a good deal more appealing). While you’ll laugh more (at least intentionally) at “Severance” than you would at, say, “Saw,” you’ll still be rendered plenty disgusted and, depending on your temperament, maybe even a little offended.
The screenplay, by James Moran and director Christopher Smith, has at least two genuinely witty moments that involve bodily dismemberment, but that’s still at least a couple short of being a true horror-comedy. This is more “horror, comedy.” Not a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but rather two different sandwiches, one PB, one J, which you’ve got to eat all at once.