Casino banal

Film - Charlotte Raven on why a new gamble by Mike Hodges doesn't pay off

There's a certain male version of cool that consists of refusing to smile when amused and never answering questions directly. The purpose of this strategy is to distance the self-styled hipster from all of the bothersome trivia that passes in polite society for meaningful conversation. Enigmatic to everyone who can't read his peculiar manner, this fellow is just too damned honest to burble on about stuff that doesn't relate to the Ultimate Truth of his being. He is happy for the rest of us to do it, as long as he can make us feel stupid by drawing attention to how facile our flailing attempts at interaction really are.

Anyone who remembers D A Pennebaker's film of Bob Dylan's 1965 solo tour will know how this tactic looks if the practitioner is a master who can thwart all attempts to draw him into "normal" conversation with glittering, surreal ripostes. The legacy of this, unfortunately, was the conviction of succeeding generations that being cool meant giving silly answers to straight questions. Thus, if you are at a party and someone asks you how you know the host, it's cooler to say that you used to share works when you both lived underneath Waterloo Bridge than the truth, that he was in your year at school.

It's funny that the lead character of Croupier tells us that he went to Bedales, the famously liberal private school that specialises in producing facetious toffs who think they are Dylanesque wits, because if I hadn't known, that is just where I would have placed him. Within ten minutes of his appearance on the screen, I wanted to ask him to get me a drink so I could run away before he came back. Although he didn't look anything like him, he reminded me, rather uncannily, of Will Self. You know that way he has of saying everything slowly and overemphatically, in order to distinguish it from common chatter? That's what this hero does. It would not be so bad if it was ever anything worth waiting for, but Jack Manfred, played by Clive Owen, is basically a hip square who strikes conversational poses - "the cynical lover", "the cynical writer/observer of the human condition", "the morally disenchanted voyeur" - along lines that will be familiar to anyone who hasn't grown out of Camus and Sartre. It is hard to say how far it was the intention of the director, Mike Hodges, to make his hero as alienating as he is alienated, but I suspect he quite likes Jack and sees something admirable in what, for me, is the acme of pseudo-coolness - the fetishisation of authenticity. When Jack becomes a croupier in order to earn the money to write his novel, he boasts of his immunity to that environment ("I never gamble"). It can't touch him, he thinks, because he is on a higher plane to the losers who frequent the Golden Lion. His smug conviction that he could never be like them is founded on an understanding that he would never put himself in situations where he wasn't in control. As all this unfolded, I hoped the film would disabuse him of his rather outmoded belief in his inviolable self. I wanted love to penetrate through all the layers of nonsense, or failing that, for someone to tell him that the way he talked to people made him look like a complete prat. If there had been any justice, the hairdresser who asked him if he lived locally would have smacked him when he answered facetiously: "My business is in Shanghai." Then, his poor girlfriend would have been spared his infidelity with another croupier, not to mention the unenviable task of having to read the first draft of his novel.

At first she doesn't like it. Jack's hero Jake is an amoral "I want to fuck the whole world over" type, and she thinks he's not very nice. Jack knows, but finds himself identifying with him anyway. He starts to see the business as Jake would, and, for a while, you think that is going to be the end of his "not for me, thanks" incarnation. Sadly, this proves not to be the case. Although he does become an accessory to a robbery in the casino - an act that supposedly embraces his Jake side - it plays as nothing more significant than a tiny shift of ethical emphasis. Jack himself is unaffected by it and, again, I couldn't work out what tone Hodges was trying to strike. At just the point where it looks as if Jack would have to ditch the poses and begin to accept his humanity, Hodges rewards him instead. God knows why. I can only assume that he has a stronger stomach than I do for Bedales boys taking what the Sex Pistols once referred to as "cheap holidays in other people's misery" and erecting plate glass between them and the "losers" they have come to watch.

Croupier (15) is showing at selected cinemas

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the people who make Tony Blair sweat