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‘The Music of Chance’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 16, 1993

"The Music of Chance" is an artfully constructed trap. Like a lobster pot, a labyrinth or a game of poker, it draws you in and doesn't let you go. A grim, almost mythic tale of captivity, it holds its characters -- and you -- in discomforting thrall. You find yourself almost screaming for relief.

It's poker -- or more accurately, the prospect of easy money -- that brings strangers Mandy Patinkin and James Spader together. Patinkin, who has put thousands of miles on his new BMW driving around the country, is running off the last of his inheritance money and his past. A former fireman now separated from his wife and child, he's all but free of personal stakes.

He stops his car at the sight of a staggering, bloodied figure on the side of the road. It's Spader, a greasy shyster in an ill-fitting, memorably un-modish suit. On his way to New York City, Patinkin offers Spader a ride and they get to talking. A winning poker player -- whose present condition was brought about by armed thieves who broke up a recent card game -- Spader is out of cash, right on the eve of a promising game. A return match with two rich but inept poker players called Flower and Stone promises him thousands. But Spader needs at least $10,000 to participate.

Satisfying himself that Spader's on the up-and-up, Patinkin offers him 10 grand for a fifty-fifty piece of the profit. They show up at the appointed place -- a lonely country estate -- and they sit down for the existential card game of their lives. The opponents are Charles Durning and Joel Grey, a Laurel-and-Hardy twosome who won big on the lottery and retired to a life of mutual eccentricity. Grey has constructed a miniature set called "The City of the World," an intricately constructed replica of scenes from his life and the world he'd like to see. (It's a universe where even the prisoners are happy for being justly punished.)

The outcome of the game -- given the Roald Dahl-meets-Beckett nature of the movie -- is hard to keep hidden. Suffice it to say, Patinkin and Spader find kinship in their unexpected enslavement. Under the drawling supervision of groundsman M. Emmet Walsh, they're forced to build a wall of stones to pay off their debts. The movie settles in for a sustained period of imprisonment.

Spader, almost unrecognizable in black hair and facial fuzz, is right on the money as a sleazy drifter. His body is constantly at an ungainly angle, as if his spine is too lazy to support his weight; and his unkempt, nihilistic demeanor never allows you to completely like him. He's admirably unappealing.

Patinkin, as the center of logic, who believes that reasonable solutions exist to the existential pratfalls of life, is superbly understated. Another memorable element of the movie (adapted by director Philip Haas from Paul Auster's novel) is Grey's City of the World, a superbly intricate construction of buildings, trees and tremendously authentic human figures which -- when scrutinized up close -- has a scary para-reality. It attests eerily to the fatalistic nature of this story.

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