The house never loses.
True story: in 1994, 21-year-old Arizona State University student Benny Silman took on an under-the-radar job booking sports bets for his fellow collegians.
In the process, Benny pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars, directed a burgeoning financial empire, partied around the clock, squired a drop-dead-gorgeous girlfriend, surrounded himself with hotties and players, orchestrated the fixing of major college basketball games, hung out in Vegas, and schmoozed with Mafiosi.
He also spent nearly four years in a South Dakota federal prison on racketeering charges.
There truly is a yin and a yang to everything.
Facts of the Case
New Yorker Benny Silman (David Krumholtz, The Santa Clause, 10 Things I Hate About You) arrives on the campus of Arizona State University feeling as though he "just stepped into a Coppertone ad." Everywhere he turns, Benny sees hordes of superfine babes in bikinis and hot pants, including Callie (Jennifer Morrison, Stir Of Echoes, Urban Legends: Final Cut). She's a fresh-faced blonde who looks like Kirsten Dunst with competent orthodontia, and she appears to return Benny's interest. What more could a kid from Brooklyn want, right?
Well…he could want mo' money. At first, all Benny wants is enough jack to pay off his $200 gambling debt to the local bookie, Troy (James LeGros, Enemy Of The State). But Troy sees something exploitable in the non-as-innocent-as-he-looks New Yorker, and employs Benny as his new deputy in the bookmaking game. Before long, Benny's burning up the phone lines taking wagers, and the long green is rolling in.
As the old adage goes, when you've got it to spend, everybody's your friend. And suddenly, Benny has a multitude of new friends, including these usual suspects:
• Stevin "Hedake" Smith (Tory Kittles, Tigerland), the star point guard on the ASU basketball team, who with Benny's encouragement cooks up a plot to rig the outcome of ASU hoops games by tanking just enough points to tip the spread;
• Joe Gagliardi, Jr. (Nicholas Turturro, whose last trip to Arizona in The Shipment had him chasing cows with illegal drugs crammed up their cabooses), a Chicago gambling shark in a pinstripe suit who happens to be best buds with…
• Dominic Mangiamele (Alex Rocco, The Wedding Planner), a "goodfella" with major capital who bankrolls the scheme;
• And a heavyweight hoodlum known as Big Red (Keith Lonecker, White Boy Bob from Out Of Sight), who cuts himself in for a chunk of the action.
The first time Benny—Mr. Outside—and Hedake—Mr. Inside—pull their little sting, everybody wins. So of course, with the urging of the underworld types with their fat envelopes wadded with greenbacks, they just have to do it again. And again. Until they do it once too often, and the authorities begin sniffing around. All of a sudden, the gravy train runs out of biscuits. With Benny getting sopped up in the middle.
George Carlin—noted humorist, etymologist, and pharmaceutical connoisseur—was once asked how cocaine made its user feel. "It makes you feel like having some more cocaine," replied hippie-dippy George. Gambling has that same effect on some people: the adrenaline rush, the fast and easy money, the rollercoaster unpredictability can be as seductive as sex and as addictive as opiates. And those thrills can lead people, at times, to doing some very stupid things. (Ask Pete Rose.)
Benny Silman found that out. Benny's downfall, though, was not his own gambling—though that's what got him into the situation in the first place—as much as it was the bountiful cash he raked in courtesy of other people's betting jones. Rubbing Benny and the Benjamins together ignited a firestorm that ultimately the canny young hustler couldn't control, not once he'd entwined himself with Hedake Smith and the wiseguys who bought him.
In telling Benny Silman's real-life story, Big Shot: Confessions of a Campus Bookie does a number of things right. Foremost among these is the casting of David Krumholtz as Benny. This charming young actor manages to make us like, even root for, this brash kid with hubris to burn, even as we shake our heads knowing that his actions are leading him down the road to ruin. Krumholtz cleverly does not take the easy way out with his characterization; he doesn't play Benny as this poor naïve schlub of whom the cold cruel world takes advantage. He's a smart, ambitious kid who knows exactly what he's doing most of the time. He simply digs himself into his self-selected money pit deeper than he's capable of climbing out.
Director Ernest Dickerson (Monday Night Mayhem) wisely exploits Krumholtz's engaging personality by allowing him to speak directly to the audience at key moments. Dickerson—best known as the cinematographer on seven Spike Lee joints, including Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X—shows as deft a hand with his story as with his star. The film begins with a punch in the face (literally) and keeps rolling briskly along for a fast-paced 88 minutes. Dickerson draws on his photographic background for inventive camera angles and techniques—an early sequence is shot using a camera harnessed to Krumholtz's body. Thanks to Dickerson, the film's style exceeds its subject matter and means.
Typical of a made-to-TV movie (Big Shot: Confessions of a Campus Bookie debuted on the FX cable channel), the production values here are, at best, adequate. The script also feels a bit patchworked together. First-time writer Jason Keller created the screenplay from a story treatment by director Michael Ritchie (Fletch, The Golden Child), casting a too-many-cooks pall over the result. None of the characters except Benny is very well developed—people disappear for long stretches only to turn up again just when we've forgotten who they were. The timeline is jumbled and difficult to pin down. But the dialogue is surprisingly fresh and funny, and the supporting cast—especially Tory Kittles as the avaricious Hedake and Jennifer Morrison in the thankless role of the token girlfriend—give enjoyable performances.
Fox Home Entertainment scores from outside with the Big Shot DVD. The 1:78 anamorphic presentation of the film itself leaves tons to be desired—a soft, diffuse look pervades most of the brighter scenes, and the darker shots look just plain muddy. Again, given that the film was probably made on a budget that wouldn't cater a keg party at a frat house, the fault may lie in the source material. The Dolby Digital soundtrack is full and rangy, sometimes too rangy—the loud passages are recorded at thunderous levels, while the dialogue is a mite undercooked. You'll need to be proactive with the remote control to maintain an acceptable listening volume.
The disc makes up the difference, though, with a couple of choice extras. Chief among these is the audio commentary, featuring Dickerson, Krumholtz, producer Kevin Messick, and the real-life Benny Silman, fresh out of the government hoosegow to chirp about his film biography. ("Being on probation, I'm not allowed to go to Las Vegas," Benny confesses.) Recorded together, all the participants are entertaining—Dickerson is slightly more low-key than the others—and clearly pleased with their efforts. A few long pauses initially, but everyone warms up before too long.
In case this chatfest isn't enough for you, you can spend nearly half an hour listening to the garrulous Benny Silman pouring out the film's backstory in his own words. This short looks dreadful—a high school kid could have videotaped it with Dad's camcorder—but it is oddly compelling, for a few minutes, anyway. Silman's a guy who likes to talk about himself, and he's given free rein here. I think he stopped to inhale maybe twice in 26 minutes. He must have been on intravenous oxygen. You'll note that several of the pertinent details of Benny's bookmaking career were altered for Hollywood. (For instance, there were actually two ASU hoopsters involved in the point-shaving scheme at its inception—Hedake Smith was the more prominent player, but he had an accomplice on the team. Also, Benny Silman's arrest and conviction came several years after the crime took place, not immediately as shown in the film. By the time he was busted, Benny was a successful entrepreneur with a chain of coffee stands, financed with his loot from the gaming scam.)
For propaganda aficionados, there's It's Not Worth It, a five-minute clip bankrolled by the NCAA, intended to dissuade budding bookies from going the Benny Silman route. It's mostly just Benny, in his prison togs, recounting his sordid tale of woe in far more abbreviated form than in the previous featurette. By now, you get the point. Gambling bad. Game-fixing bad. Benny bad. Bad, bad Benny.
A pair of TV ads promoting the film and a couple of trailers—a teaser for the comedy Super Troopers and a full-length theatrical preview for the Morgan Freeman-Ashley Judd drama High Crimes—complete the package.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Gotta love a flick that thumps Tone Loc's "Funky Cold Medina" under the opening credits, then segues to Dean Martin crooning "Ain't That a Kick in the Head." Diversity in action. It's a beautiful thing.
Given that another jurisdiction has already found Benny Silman guilty of big-time crime, this Court finds no reason to compound the matter by convicting his bio. He's served his hitch and is free to go. We're adjourned.
Oh, and Mr. Silman—stay out of Las Vegas.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Director Ernest Dickerson, Executive Producer Kevin Messick, Actor David Krumholtz, and Film Subject Benny Silman
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