Paul Auster's book The Music of Chance is a curious inspiration for a movie, and the resulting effort from Philip and Belinda Haas is a curious film--one that, like its source, is unusual, absorbing, and more than a little frustrating.
Mandy Patinkin plays Jim Nashe, a former Boston fireman who has spent more than a year driving across America, spending a $200,000 inheritance. As the film opens, he finds a bloodied young man in a leisure suit limping along the Taconic Parkway. Offering him a lift to New York, he learns that
his passenger is Jack Pozzi (James Spader), a precocious poker prodigy. Pozzi explains that he had been fleecing a roomful of "young Republicans" when his game was interrupted by an armed raid, leaving him physically bruised and financially broke. A real pity, too, since he had set up a pair of
ripe marks in Pennsylvania for a big game in two days. Nashe impulsively offers to back Pozzi in the game, buying him new clothes and putting up the last of his inheritance for a share of the profits.
Pozzi agrees and they drive out to the secluded, curio-filled country home of Bill Flower (Charles Durning) and Willy Stone (Joel Grey), two eccentric lottery-winning millionaires. The garrulous Flower gives the guests a tour which ends at what he calls "The City of the World," a huge diorama
that represents crucial stages in the lives of Flower and Stone. Their next project together, Flower relates, is the construction of a wall in their private meadow from the 10,000 stones of a ruined Irish castle.
The game is going Pozzi's way when Nashe gets up for a stretch and wanders back to the "City of the World." Impulsively, he steals the miniature of Flower and Stone buying their lottery ticket and returns to the game, only to find Pozzi well behind and in need of more cash. After burning through
Nashe's money and year-old BMW, they proceed to lose even more and end up owing $10,000. Unwilling to let the two leave without settling the debt, Stone proposes that they go to work building the wall, earning $200 a day. Nashe agrees and Pozzi, after much protest, joins him. The two are given a
trailer in which to live and, under the watchful eye of Calvin Murks (M. Emmet Walsh), who acts as foreman and guard, they begin building. Nashe seems to welcome the work as an act of contrition, but Pozzi rages against the unfairness of the situation. After Pozzi attacks Murks during an argument,
the guard starts wearing a gun on his hip.
Anticipating the completion of their servitude after 50 days, Pozzi decides to throw a party and asks Murks to provide a hooker (Samantha Mathis). The next morning, Nashe learns that "the bosses" have been deducting living expenses from their "earnings," leaving them still thousands of dollars
in debt. Pozzi escapes, but the next morning Nashe finds him in the meadow, beaten to within an inch of his life. Murks and his son-in-law Floyd (Christopher Penn) take the unconscious Pozzi to the hospital--or so they claim. Nashe believes that the two of them carried out the beating. He finally
pays off his debt and, in celebration, Murks offers to take Nashe to town for a drink with Floyd. Nashe agrees, beats Floyd in a game of pool, and asks to be allowed to drive his old car, which Murks now owns, back to the house. He engineers an accident that kills both Murks and Floyd, pulls
himself free and limps down the highway, where a passing motorist (Paul Auster) offers him a lift.
Co-screenwriters Philip and Belinda Haas have taken great pains to be faithful to Auster's text, and have largely succeeded in translating this intricate allegory to the screen. Philip Haas's direction lends a vivid gravity both to the painful dissolution of the poker game and the gradual
raising of the wall, expertly aided by Bernard Zitzermann's lush photography.
Durning does fine service as the blustery Flower, whose cheerful demeanor conceals a cruel cunning. Grey is suitably creepy as the enigmatic, unctuous Stone and Walsh, a delight in any role, handles Murks's ambiguities with easy grace. Spader is simply outstanding as he bluffs, jokes, whines,
and snarls his way through the proceedings. On the other hand, Patinkin's dour glumness and monotonous, somewhat unconvincing, Boston accent sabotage the presentation of Nashe, a man haunted, in Auster's words, by "the image of irreducible separateness burned down into his memory." Nashe is the
emotional center of Auster's novel, his sense of loss and need to build a new self the driving thematic force. Here, he remains too ill-defined a figure.
THE MUSIC OF CHANCE is an intentionally ambiguous parable that leaves many loose ends waving in the breeze wafting across the country road. But while the various ambiguities and unresolved questions serve--deliberately--to emphasize Auster's trademark feeling of disjunction, they also undermine
the viewer's involvement in the story. Despite the slyly self-reflexive ending (which is not in the book), the film leaves one feeling that something else needed to happen, needed to be shown. The result is, nevertheless, a truly original piece of work, an unpredictable story that strives to tell
itself in its own, always entertaining, way. (Violence, profanity, sexual situations, adult situations.)
Cast & Details See all »
- Released: 1993
- Rating: R
- Review: Paul Auster's book The Music of Chance is a curious inspiration for a movie, and the resulting effort from Philip and Belinda Haas is a curious film--one that, like its source, is unusual, absorbing, and more than a little frustrating. Mandy Patinkin pl… (more)