After putting blogs on the back-burner for awhile, it seems I’ve sold one of the university’s websites on the idea of a new movie review blog written by yours truly, which means my focus has to change. First, the final rounds between Bluth and Miyazaki will have to be suspended indefinitely (which will give me time to make up my mind on the movies of theirs I saw too long ago to give a fair judgement on but not long enough to go in with a clean slate). Replacing it is a clash of cities, with the cinema recorded here in Pittsburgh taking on a new city every week, each throwing in their best entry from a specific genre.
In the meantime, today I’d like to offer my small nod to Ted Demme, nephew of oscar-winner Jonathan Demme, who was still working to get out from behind his uncle’s shadow when he died of a heart attack at 38. I pull no punches in my review of this early effort of his, titled The Bet, which I think makes the praise significant; hopefully it says something worthwhile about the young director.
Ted Demmeâ€™s The Bet opens not with a scene but with images, of relatively still streets and shops in New York City. Demme knows that theyâ€™re familiar images to the audience, but there is little to no affection in the shots. The Bet is not nostalgic, and itâ€™s not hopeful; it does not pass judgment one way or the other on any of its characters, save for one. It is, through and through, a â€œslice of lifeâ€ movie.
If it had taken out one character and replaced him with a wife, a father, or some other character in a relationship destined to sit passively and cut their losses, it would have been a recycled story with all parts conveyable in one sentence (perhaps two, after its final twist). Harry (Josh Mosby) owns a sandwich shop left to him by his father, but he is indebted to mobsters due to a gambling problem and can only think of going to the track one more time to save himself, risking what can only escalate to everything. The additional layer comes from his partner, the more responsible and weary but hopeful brother Henry (John Benjamin Hickey). In a way, this is the most closely-knotted relationship possible. Henry and Harry donâ€™t just play on the same team; they are the whole team and the owners. They are each otherâ€™s only means of success.
Henry dreams of turning his deli into chain, just enough to gain some prominence and recognition, and without a hindrance, he may have the business savvy to do it. But Harry is stopping him. Harry shows us right away that heâ€™s a petty game-player with money. Phrases such as â€œI give you my wordâ€ and â€œI swear to Godâ€ by now are only means of buying time for him. Henry needs a partner, but though Harry seems to care about his brotherâ€™s well-being, he doesnâ€™t tell Henry what he really wants.
In fact, we have no reason to think that Harry knows himself. Peeling back his lies only reveals more lies. He might have already sealed his fate. When heâ€™s cornered by his lenderâ€™s thug demanding a straightforward answer, he can only submit to a thumb-breaking.
The villains are less impressive, despite sincere efforts from Vincent Pastore and Anthony Crivello to breathe some life into the thug and boss archetypes. As usual, the most telling thing about the thug is the consumer item he enjoys while doing his business; the true Rocky and Mugsy caricature usually carries a cigar, while the more everythug type may enjoy a sandwich or a pastry. This thug seems to be getting in touch with his inner child; he enters sipping a pink snow cone. His Steve Buscemi gangster of a boss only gets a few moments to chew the scenery when we meet him while the thug switches to sinisterly biting into apples, evidently on a new diet.
Demme makes some decent use of scenery, as when a shot of the city slowly turns to face Harryâ€™s uncle, whoâ€™s made his brief appearance to help us contemplate Harry. The story, however, can only lead to the inevitable climax of Harry attempting to solve his problems with more gambling, putting everything on the line behind his brotherâ€™s back. Amoral though it may be, I admit I wanted to just once see what happens when putting all his faith in a horse pays off for the gambler and suddenly gives him everything he wanted. I wonâ€™t reveal whether the movie gave me my wish, but I will say the mild surprise it gave quickly turned into something just as clichÃ©. Itâ€™s a shame too, because, actually, if the ending had taken more time to develop and convey true authenticity, it could have been a rather poignant statement. It was definitely on to something.