Clive Owen in Croupier

UK, 1998. Not rated. 91 minutes.

Cast: Clive Owen, Gina McKee, Alex Kingston, Kate Hardie, Nicholas Ball, Nick Reding, Kate Fenwick
Writer: Paul Mayersberg
Music: Simon Fisher-Turner
Cinematographer: Michael Garfath
Producers: Jonathan Cavendish, Christine Ruppert
Directors: Mike Hodges


Grade: B Review by Carlo Cavagna

Think of Croupier as an alternate and superior British version of Rounders with elements of Reindeer Games thrown in. Like Rounders, Croupier concerns a man living a straight life (as an unsuccessful novelist in this case) who, against the wishes of his girlfriend and his own better judgement, returns to the seamy world of gambling. In Croupier, the protagonist is on the other side of the table. He is the dealer, not the gambler. Being the dealer proves to be no less treacherous. Like the successful gambler, the dealer must be able to read other people. Like the gambler, he must wear two faces, an impassive exterior to disguise the thoughts within. Like the gambler, he must resist the temptations of illegal money-making schemes.

Although highly stylish and original, Croupier falls short of excellence. One problem is the presence of hilariously unnecessary voiceover narration, during which the protagonist, Jack (Clive Owen), shows his mastery of the obvious by persistently pointing out things we can plainly see for ourselves, referring to himself in the third person in an ironic tone of voice all the while.

(From the high grade and the encouraging opening paragraph, Jack observed that the reviewer had enjoyed the film. This was good news. It seemed, however, that the reviewer was less than pleased with the narration...)

Jack starts on a novel based on his experiences as a "croupier" (term of art for a dealer in a casino, apparently), and the narration represents Jack writing the novel as the real story unfolds. His ironic detachment conveys the sense of control experienced by the expressionless croupier, a people watcher extraordinaire. With experience a croupier learns to observe all the little things conveyed by the customers' gestures and manner, eventually divining their thoughts and seeing right through them.Clive Owen in Croupier

(...As he reached the end of the third paragraph, Jack could see the reviewer had not fully understood the purpose of the narration. Although the reviewer did appear to grasp something of what it means to be a croupier, only a real croupier could fully understand...)

Unlike the narration in Fight Club, Goodfellas, and Trainspotting, the voiceover in Croupier is not an artistic end unto itself. It's a screenwriter's crutch. It doesn't twist or augment what's happening onscreen, it just explains it. Guiding us through Jack's return to the world of gambling and casinos, it attempts to compensate for sloppy exposition. We never really get to know the straight-arrow Jack as he's supposed to be at the beginning of the story, so the narration tells us how Jack changes, making sure we understand.

(...The fourth paragraph confirmed that the reviewer didn't know what he was talking about. Jack had seen this before. Jack could read between the lines. The reviewer's attempt at knowledgeable criticism was intended to disguise the fact that he could not read the film as Jack could read him...)

Croupier is an engrossing journey despite the narration. As Jack gradually detaches from the world around him, he sees people more as numbers and probabilities than as human beings, and he becomes mildly perverse... simply because he has the power to be so. There is an interesting and sometimes funny juxtaposition of how full of integrity everyone thinks Jack is–including Jack himself–with what's actually occurring in the story.

(...By the end of the fifth paragraph, Jack had–Okay, okay, shut up already. This was annoying enough in the film; I won't stand for it in my review! ...You, sir, have no sense of art... This isn't art; this is a review. Go away.)

Croupier adds layer upon layer of complexity to the story as it progresses, sort of like peeling an onion in reverse. However, characters' motivations are murky. For example Jack is hired to do a job that it is not necessary to hire him to do, because he would have done it anyway. As the protagonist's girlfriend, Gina McKee (Notting Hill) makes a more sympathetic character than her counterpart Gretchen Mol in Rounders, but it's unclear (and inconsistent with her character) why she stays with Jack as he grows distant and gets involved with other women, Bella (Kate Hardie), a fellow croupier, and Jani (Alex Kingston), a customer.
The Big Picture

Because Croupier is so absorbing, it is disappointing that plot threads are left hanging at the end. With all the narration, it's amazing what isn't cleared up, and the ending raises as many questions as it answers. Things happen to characters around Jack–convenient things that facilitate his transformation into the ultimate control artist, but for which there are no good explanations. Of course, he's not really in full control. Something unexpected happens near the end that Jack may or may not be responsible for. This kind of ambiguity is often intriguing, but in Croupier, it's frustrating and virtually pointless. It doesn't help that during the scene, a character appears almost for the first time, says bizarre things, and is never seen again. Mike Hodges' coolly assured direction (Hodges also directed the classic British thriller Get Carter) does counterbalance the confusion somewhat.

Other AboutFilm.Com contributors have suggested there is a way of interpreting Croupier that helps everything to make sense, which is that the narration represents not only the novel being written as Jack lives his life, but that the novel encroaches on reality. In other words, Croupier begins in the real world and ends in fantasy as Jack's delusions take over. If this possibility were more fully developed, the mixing of reality and fiction would add a fascinating dimension to the film and partly explain the more unusual events and unresolved elements, as well as the seemingly unnecessary narration. Unfortunately, there is little evidence upon which to base that interpretation–only that the narration hints that Jack exercises more control over people and events than seems possible. Control that would not be possible, that is, unless Jack himself is the author of the world around him. To determine whether such an interpretation could be valid would require a second viewing, but, though engaging, Croupier is not quite good enough to merit one.

Review © July 2000 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
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