The Winner
directed by Alex Cox
(Norstar/Live Entertainment, 1996)

The Winner opens against the blare of jazz horns and closes with a blackout. Much happens in between -- none of which is supposed to.

That's because The Winner takes place in Las Vegas, where little is real, including the people, and because it's directed by Alex Cox, best known for offbeat films like Repo Man and Sid and Nancy.

It revolves around a poor slob named Philip (Vincent D'Onofrio), who walks one night into the Pair-A-Dice casino and discovers that he can't lose. Philip is so happy with his winnings that he gives most of them away.

That makes him an object of suspicion as well as envy in the Pair-A-Dice, a den of thieves where everyone -- except Philip, of course -- makes a living by cheating everyone else.

Of these, the most noticeable is Louise the lounge singer (Rebecca DeMornay), who's trashy even by Vegas standards: she doesn't tease her hair, she torments it. And the most powerful is the casino owner, a loan shark named Kingman (Delroy Lindo). Kingman has a special place in his heart for guys like Philip: "Losers," he says, "take care of themselves. They lose. Winners you have to destroy."

But Philip has his protectors, too, like Joey, Frankie and Paulie (Frank Whaley, Richard Edson and Saverio Guerra), a trio of small-time crooks who make the Three Stooges look slick. Their goal in life is to keep Philip alive long enough to heist his winnings.

And then there's Louise's boyfriend Jack (Billy Bob Thornton), who wants Philip to win enough money to help Louise pay off her debt to Kingman and put him and Louise on easy street, and Philip's long-lost brother Wolf (Michael Madsen), who's also Louise's long-lost boyfriend. Wolf wants a piece of the action -- and of Louise as well.

If this sounds inbred, it is, and if the players appear to be acting like inbreds, not to mention ingrates, they are. But that's half the fun of The Winner, which continues the social satire of Cox's Repo Man, showing slow-on-the-draw people caught up in events they couldn't comprehend on their best days, assuming they have any.

This makes The Winner more a caricature study than a character study, and nobody makes this more obvious than DeMornay, whose over-the-top performance more than tops Cox's over-the-top style of satire.

The dark side of this approach is that it begs the question "When does too much become too much?" In Repo Man, Cox took the angst of a young man trying to find his place in a world that didn't seem worthy of him and fashioned a fanciful answer.

What, if anything, is there to search for in Vegas? And if there's nothing, aren't we just watching a group of dimwits trying to outdumb one another? Yes, apparently, and enjoying every minute of it.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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