It’s tempting to put too much weight on the way screenwriter Paul Mayersberg lays out the intricate rules, shows off the particular lingo, and creates a feeling of being a fly on the wall of a casino in London. With Jack Manfred (Clive Owen) — sometimes “Jake” when he imagines himself as the protagonist of the novel he’s writing, but always the pragmatist — as our guide, Croupier is always digging deeper into the shady world of professional gambling, even as its story flounders with double-crosses and backstabs and stretches to tie it to a lofty theme of chance.

Jack is pursuing a writing career, but his potential publisher (Nick Reding) needs a juicy story. In the meantime, his father (Nicholas Ball) has found him a job opportunity at a local casino as a croupier (Dad has many contacts in the gambling world, we assume, since he always calls Jack from a casino payphone). A natural at sorting chips, dealing cards, and spotting cheaters, Jack fits in right off the bat.

His boss sets up the basic rules: Don’t become friends with fellow croupiers, don’t fraternize with the female employees, and never, ever talk to any patrons of the casino off the floor. Jack breaks them all. He starts getting rides from Matt (Paul Reynolds), a fellow croupier who cheats, gambles, and has a lifetime goal to screw over as many people as he can. He sleeps with Bella (Kate Hardie), a waitress at the casino, which puts an inevitable strain on his relationship with girlfriend, Marion (Gina McKee), who really — despite Jack’s warnings — believes in her man. Then there’s Jani (Alex Kingston), a fellow expatriate from South Africa, a professional gambler, and the woman with whom he breaks his boss’s (Alexander Morton) third rule.

The only restriction Jack has no problem abiding by is the one to never gamble, since that is his own personal philosophy. Gamble, and you will eventually lose.

As long as Mayersberg keeps his eye on Jack’s role as a “detached voyeur” in his own world (even narrating events in third person), the movie holds a complete fascination with the material. Odd, unessential points, such as the observation that the casino runs an unofficial money laundering operation (a woman bets equally on red and black in roulette, exchanging dirty cash for chips, chips for casino money), hold an atmospheric sway. Even Jack’s identity split, in which he tests the waters of breaking his own rules as “Jake” just to gather material for his book, is an intriguing narrative device, and Owen’s droll delivery and debonair demeanor help sell the conceit.

As the plot thickens and those seemingly unimportant betrayals become more and more vital to Jack’s story, Croupier begins to grasp for some significance that simply is not here.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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