Why are gambling films so hard to follow?
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In Mississippi Grind, Ben Mendelsohn plays an all-purpose loser seeking redemption through an all-or-nothing poker game run by a legendary gambler who once threw a (sedated) tiger into the pot when he ran low on cash. He makes his pilgrimage in the company of the bouncy, chipper Ryan Reynolds, briefly People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, still quite sexy and very much alive. A competent but by no means superlative S188 gambler, and a man who has serious relationship issues – Sienna Miller isn’t enough to keep this guy satisfied – Reynolds has agreed to bankroll Mendelsohn. It is never entirely clear why.
Because there have been so many films about gamblers and pool sharks and athletes and crooks in search of the elusive pot of gold that will free them from all their debts, get them straight with their bookies, and allow them to repair their fractured family lives, it is easy to follow the basic narrative thread of Mississippi Grind.
What is not so easy to follow is the gambling itself. They play various types of poker, blackjack, craps and roulette. They S188 gamble on basketball games and dog races, and, needless to say, play the ponies. There are extended sequences where Mendelsohn is seen gazing at his cards as a queen or an ace or a seven turns up on the table. There is lots of betting, lots of posturing, lots of wisecracking and lots of stuff about “tells”, the tics, gestures or mannerisms that enables a player to determine whether his adversary is bluffing.
Films about sports or S188 gambling always make extravagant assumptions about the expertise of the audience. I often wonder what foreigners make of films such as Hoosiers, Any Given Sunday or Field of Dreams, which deal with American sports that have somewhat complicated rules. I found it hard to follow Chariots of Fire, even though competitive running should not be that hard to process. I can never follow the baccarat sequences in movies such as S188 Casino Royale. I have no idea what is going on in Rounders, The Croupier, California Split, The Cincinnati Kid or assorted films called The Gambler. The classic Paul Newman-Robert Redford con artist film The Sting hinged upon the phrase: “Place it.” I know that it is one for the money and two for the show. But I always thought it was “three to get ready”, not “three to place”. Or “place to finish second”. The whole thing is terribly confusing. Hamstrung by such defective gambling information, I never had any idea what was going on in The Sting. Neither did my mum, already in her 80s when we watched it together.
“Can you explain what’s going on here?” she asked me.
“No,” I replied. “Next lifetime.”
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