Even Money

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The purpose of “Even Money” is to tell us this: Gambling Is Bad. You people out there who are gambling, you better cut it out. CUT IT OUT, I SAID!!

Now, I like being lectured to in a somber, heavy-handed manner as much as the next guy. That’s usually why I go to the movies, in fact, because I want someone to pound a message into my skull for two hours, and to do it artlessly and dully.

But “Even Money” also has Kelsey Grammer wearing a fake nose and chin, hobbling on crutches and playing a hard-boiled detective. Why ruin a perfectly good lecture with something so funny?

Directed by Mark Rydell (“On Golden Pond”) from a screenplay by newbie Robert Tannen, “Even Money” blends several melodramatic stories of gambling fever into a giant casserole of Afterschool Special moralizing. Carol Carver (Kim Basinger) is a novelist, wife and mother who spends all her days at the slot machines, gambling away her family’s savings. Murph (Grant Sullivan) is a low-level bookie striving to hide his occupation from the woman he loves (Carla Gugino). Clyde Snow (Forest Whitaker) loves to bet on college basketball and has a beloved nephew, Godfrey (Nick Cannon), who’s coming up in the ranks as the next big NCAA star. And Victor (Tim Roth) is a high-powered underworld bookie who works for the elusive “Ivan” (and may actually BE Ivan, for all anyone knows).

Grammer, playing Det. Brunner, interacts with some of the lowlifes as he investigates a bookie’s murder, but that subplot is a red herring. The real attention is focused on Carol, who meets a magician-turned-con-man named Walter (Danny DeVito) who wants to help her make back the money she’s squandered. Her husband, Tom (Ray Liotta), growing suspicious of the fact that Carol goes to the coffeehouse every day to write yet is never any closer to finishing, is just a few steps away from discovering his life savings is gone, so Carol and Walter have to act fast.

Meanwhile, Clyde’s sports-betting debts are growing, and the type of people he borrows from aren’t known for their leniency or payment plans. They want him to persuade Godfrey to throw a game. The young man loves his uncle, but is this going too far?

Murph’s girlfriend finds out what he does for a living. He defends himself. “I give people dreams,” he says. “No, Murph,” she replies. “You take their dreams away.”

That’s some thick dialogue there, and “Even Money” is loaded with it. Basinger over-acts egregiously and Roth chews the scenery shamelessly, while Grammer actually underplays his character, who evidently walked in from the set of a film noir circa 1940. Forest Whitaker, who deserves an Emmy for the most recent season of “The Shield,” flirts with over-the-top hysterics here but mostly stays just this side of it.

It’s all so ham-fisted and clumsy, a movie whose agenda looms heavily over the proceedings. It shares a producer with “Crash,” Bob Yari, and matches that film’s obnoxious “look how important our message is” attitude. “Crash” had better performances, though. “Even Money” is a bust.

D+ (1 hr., 54 min.; R, a lot of profanity including the F-bomb, some violence.)

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