When you think of great writer/directors, the name of Jeff Probst probably never comes to mind. Yet, somehow, shortly after Probst began hosting “Survivor,” he wrote and directed a low-budget independent film called “Finder’s Fee.” What is a bit surprising is that, despite a cast of 20-something, at-the-time macho up-and-comers that included Ryan Reynolds, the movie wasn’t another version of “Van Wilder.” (Reynolds actually made this film before his breakthrough in “Van Wilder.”) Instead, it’s an attempt at a serious, albeit twisty, morality tale. Probst tries to juggle too many balls at one time, but, despite several script missteps, “Finder’s Fee” is a decent movie.
“Finder’s Fee” is set at a weekly poker game at which four longtime friends play for unusual stakes. In addition to Reynolds, the other three players are all familiar TV faces, if not names. Top-billed Erik Palladino hosts the game, while steady family man Dash Mihok and loudmouth jerk Matthew Lillard also participate. The gimmick of the game is that each player buys a ticket for that night’s state lottery (with a $6 million jackpot) but doesn’t watch the drawing. Then for the game’s final hand, they put their tickets into the pot with the winner taking all. What the others don’t know is that Palladino found a wallet that had a lottery ticket inside in a gutter earlier that evening. Naturally, that found ticket turns out to be the jackpot winner. Complicating matters is the fact that Palladino left a message for the wallet’s owner (without mentioning the ticket). As soon as the guys start play, James Earl Jones shows up to claim the wallet and then winds up joining the poker game, unaware of just what the night’s big prize will be.
All movies of this nature require a certain suspension of disbelief, but “Finder’s Fee” has one of the most improbable sets of plot coincidences I’ve ever seen. The biggest of those coincidences, and one that is never satisfactorily explained in the script, is just how the other players become aware that there’s a jackpot-winning ticket in the game. Of course, once they do (but never admit it), the film turns into an exploration of the greed and morality of the various players. To strain credibility (and ratchet up the tension) even further, Palladino’s apartment building winds up lockdown shortly after Jones arrives due to a report of an at-large fugitive who might be hiding there. The cop (Robert Forster) in charge of the manhunt calls on the players several times before the film is over.
Doubtless, Jeff Probst could have made a simpler, more straightforward movie than “Finder’s Fee,” either as a comedy or a thriller. But he chose an extremely complex storyline and then imposed additional restrictions on his story. The movie takes place almost entirely inside Palladino’s apartment (which seems to have only one large room), and it takes place in real-time, so that everything from finding the wallet to the movie’s surprise ending transpires in 100 minutes or so. That use of real-time framing isn’t just a gimmick. It actually boosts tension in the film and makes some of the more haphazard character actions more credible (when you’re in a hurry, you sometimes cut corners and make mistakes). Although I had a hard time buying a couple of the characters, especially Lillard (who seems like the sort of jerk no one would want at their poker game), I bought into the story.
“Finder’s Fee” does boast a solid cast, but what really sells the film is James Earl Jones. He slips effortlessly into this role with a folksy demeanor and ability to manufacture sympathy for himself at the drop of a hat, making viewers wonder just how on-the-level he actually is. Also, any time that Robert Forster has a couple of opportunities to chew some scenery, the result is a better movie.
I appreciate filmmakers who take chances, and Probst was really flexing his creative muscles here, with the result being a very ambitious movie. “Finder’s Fee” doesn’t always work, and the scenes that don’t work can be somewhat awkward to watch. Yet, overall, I was entertained and, more importantly, I stayed interested in seeing just how the film would play out. For those interested in somewhat of a change of pace to pass the time on a stay-at-home Saturday night, “Finder’s Fee” is a good find.