Bookies

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“Bookies” has an interesting premise that it allows to languish from underuse. Rather than mining comedy or drama from it, the film throws its idea onto the screen and then shuffles away.

The idea is that three college guys — smart, handsome Toby (Nick Stahl), computer-nerdy Casey (Lukas Haas) and irrational hothead Jude (Johnny Galecki) — have lost $1,000 in a massive bet on college sports. It occurs to them that the only ones making money on gambling are the bookies, who take a 10 percent “vig,” or service charge, on every bet. Ergo, it seems advantageous to become bookies themselves.

Now, no one can know who the bookies are, of course, or they’ll be at best turned in to the cops and at worst beaten and robbed by fellow students. Jude works at the campus library, though, and he hits on a genius system. Each bettor is told a specific book in which to place his money, and another specific book from which to collect his winnings, if any. Naturally, Jude selects only books that are never checked out, lest the cash fall into the wrong hands. Since the gamblers assume they’re dealing with high-level bookies, they never think of just not paying up.

The system is fraught with peril, yet aside from one incident whose significance is largely ignored, it does not result in any grand mishaps. It works pretty well, in fact, and the trio of students become wealthy. Casey wants new computers, Toby wants to woo a pretty sports-medicine student (Rachael Leigh Cook), and Jude starts doing drugs. They also run afoul of the local Mafia, which already had a nice gambling ring going, thank you very much.

The film was directed by Mark Illsley, whose debut, “Happy, Texas” (1999), had all the whimsy and humor that this film lacks. It has brief moments of fun, and some minor skirmishes with high drama. But for the most part, it is content merely to tell its story, the plot of which is nothing different, unusual or special. This is an uncompelling movie.

What’s curious about it is the way it deals with the moral aspects of the boys’ scheme. To raise the initial capital necessary to start a gambling operation, Toby takes out an emergency student loan. If gambling isn’t already somewhat questionable in your system of morals, here’s something that surely is. And yet, the film ignores such questions. Early on, I assumed there were two ways it could go. Either it would all come crashing down and it would turn out to be a cautionary tale, or else they’d get away with it and the film would revel in the immorality of its characters. Little did I suspect a third possibility: that the film would pretend the moral questions don’t even exist. My problem with the film, then, is that without those issues, what’s the point? Did the characters learn anything? Did they NOT learn anything? The movie acts like learning isn’t even one of the things movie characters are expected to do, which seems pretty obtuse.

C+ (1 hr., 26 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, some drug use.)

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