Top positive review
redemption by poker???
on 3 July 2015
This 1998 movie is an enjoyable exercise in a familiar genre -- the kind of movie in which a person who has made a mess of some aspect of his life gets a chance at "redemption" (I use the word loosely!) by having to win some decisive contest. That contest might be a fight ("The Wrestler," "Rocky"). a court case ("The Verdict"), a battle ("Top Gun"), a fishing rivalry ("A River Runs Through It"), or, in this case, a game of poker (Texas hold 'em, to be exact). The basic pattern allows for a lot of variety -- the protagonist's mess-ups might be matters of bad luck, or lack of moral courage," or alcoholism, or some ethical failure -- and the antagonists might be genuine bad guys or just neutral challenges that he has to meet to demonstrate that he is worth our sympathy and the sympathy of his friends and/or lovers in the particular story. In this story, Matt Damon is Mike McDermott, a law student whose real gift and whose real interest is in playing high stakes poker and who, in an effort to finance a trip to Vegas, where he would like to compete at the highest levels, loses $30,000 to Teddy KGB (John Malkovich, with Oreos), a Russian mob-connected player who seems to be running games out of a basement area in New York City. Mike loses fair and square, as he knows is always possible, and at the urging of his girlfriend (Gretchen Mol) gives up the game, and to finance the rest of his education, takes a job as truck driver for Joey Knish (John Turturro), an acquaintance who makes a living playing poker cautiously. Joey seeks to minimize risk and avoid high stakes, while Mike relishes the high stakes and therefore the risk that goes with that.
Trouble starts when Mike's friend Worm (Edward Norton) gets out of jail and has to find a way of paying off an outstanding debt. To avoid a lot of spoilers, I'll just say that Mike stands surety for Worm, so the debt becomes his -- this is now HIS mess, even though we can see that it was prompted by a sincere desire to help out an old friend. But Worm is neither reliable nor honest, and his impulse control is zero, with the result that the debt that Mike has stood surety for grows larger, and -- as is predictable in this kind of movie -- it's going to take a big win in a climactic game to pay it off. The young Matt Damon -- fresh from "Good Will Hunting" -- is fine as Mike, but the smaller parts taken by Turturro and Malkovich are more vividly played. As Worm, Edward Norton is infuriating -- which is exactly what's required -- and as a law professor sympathetic to Mike, Martin Landau gives him both advice and practical help. Landau tells Damon's character that his parents never forgave him for giving up rabbinical study and becoming a lawyer -- and the fact that he became a respected and successful one cut no ice with them. The question for Mike is clear -- is a lawyer really YOUR calling? And we, the audience, might wonder -- is playing poker really a calling? Well, see the movie and find out -- it's well acted, atmospheric, and entertaining.