Eventually my native tastes took over. The art house gave way to natty noirs and genre curiosities. Self-actualization, to mix psychological modalities, lost out to the pleasure principle. All that matters to me now is novelty and cheap diversion. I’m too tired to cast for depth. I want sideshows, genre-fare, and oddballs but only in such proportions that I don’t have to think very hard about any of them.
Which brings me to Croupier (1998), a decidedly un-shadowy bric-a-brac whiff of noir pastiche directed by Mike Hodges and starring, well, bear with me for a second and just do what I say.
Close your eyes. Picture Clive Owen, mid-thirties but playing a somewhat younger man. His hair is dyed bleach blonde. He wears pinstripe suit pants, suspenders, a plain gray sweatshirt—the kind you’d wear for a long fall jog if you were in the witness protection program—and, sometimes, a flat-brimmed fedora. He smokes French cigarettes at the rate of about two a minute. He has a fire-engine red phone and a turn-of-the-century word processor with a tiny screen; it is very small device but probably weighs about 11 pounds.
Blond Clive Owen (BCO) is only around for twenty minutes or so, so you must savor him while he’s there. BCO is a writer whose only apparent relationship to literature is a passage from Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, which he quotes twice, in booming hardboiled voice over. BCO is an ex-casino hand who used to live and work in South Africa for some reason and who briefly tries (and fails) to write a “soccer novel” while living with a girlfriend of convenience named Marion. After getting a nudging reference from his disappointing and dishonest father, BCO gets a job at the Golden Lion Casino, dyes his hair black, and the movie is effectively over.
Clive Owen, whether blond or black, plays a character named Jack Manfred. The nomenclatural connotations here are not expansive; it is like saying Guy Male Name. Jack eventually discovers and embraces a more daring, creative, and morally plastic version of himself, an alter ego named Jake, which is elaboration without much difference. This Jack/Jake* character resolves not to gamble but observe the spectacle of addiction and desperation from the croupier’s privileged and Zeusian remove, and eventually write a book about it, using his own lantern-jawed observations and experiences as the basis for it. Along the way, there is plenty of casino intrigue—cons, betrayals, gambles large and small—and a twist ending that makes Jack/Jake look back on his relationships with bemused but cynical appreciation. But none of that matters because BCO, the real treasure, that brief but thrilling oddity, like the flash of rare and exotic bird through your peripheral vision, has fled.
are standard names choices even within the silly subgenre of writer’s block
movies; see Jack Torrance from The Shining and Jake Briggs from She’s
Having a Baby.