Released earlier this year, Getting Back to Zero is the story of two brothers. One of them, Derek (Nathan Anderson), is an uptight yuppie with a wife and kid (who are never seen on screen). The other, Charlie (Nathan Wetherington), is a carefree and careless gambler with no permanent ties. It’s not clear if he even has a permanent residence. Charlie is a lot like their father, while Derek has spent his entire adult life trying to be anybody else. Their father (William Atherton in a cameo) was a wealthy man, but was addicted to craps and believed — wrongly — that he could control the outcome of the dice. When he dies, the two brothers are brought back together for his funeral, and the inheritance.
Or… the lack thereof. Their father was in considerable debt at the time of his debt and all he had to leave them with was his own high-quality craps table. Problems come knocking at the door, literally, when a couple of thugs show up trying to collect the $4 million dollars their father still owed.
Which is how you know he wasn’t actually able to control the dice.
Trying to come up with the funds before the deadline, the brothers eventually hit upon an idea. The house always wins at craps, so why not be the house? They have the table, they have a place to set up, all they need are some players. And so begins a semi-dark comedy about a couple of guys gambling on people gambling their fortunes to them.
Director Roger Roth has helmed a few films before this, but all are fairly obscure and low-budget. Taking a look at the official website (I was curious whether it had gotten an actual theatrical release or had gone direct to video on demand; it was the latter), it’s clear this film was a labor of love for Roth. I have enough sympathy to not want to be too hard on the film because of this, and fortunately I can be honest in giving it some praise as there are things it does quite well. But it does also have some of the characteristic unevenness of a writer-director who is still early in their career.
Roth did well picking out his actors. Nathans Anderson and Wetherington really do come across as diametrically-opposed brothers. There’s that sense of natural comfort and natural conflict co-existing that gives the impression that they really are related. And some of the side characters who come to play at the house are quite colorful. Wayne Newton — Mr. Vegas himself — plays their father’s lawyer, and he’s thoroughly entertaining as he hams it up at the craps table. And Jim Dowd is so charismatic as Frankie, the ringleader of a group of players, that I was more than half-convinced I’d seen him somewhere before — and was surprised to find out I hadn’t when I looked up his filmography. I will certainly be on the lookout for him afterward, though.
The film is a comedy-drama, and it handles the comedy better than the drama. It’s not a laugh-a-minute slapstick festival, but it has a fair amount of witty banter, and will generate a few laughs along the way from the situation. The dramatic aspect doesn’t fare so well, largely because of a decision to have the brothers’ strife stem from more than just their current situation and their relationships with their father. There’s a plot element concerning their past and their mother that comes out essentially unforeshadowed, and which essentially isn’t dealt with afterwards. It feels as though it was inserted just to have a dramatic sting, and the film would have been stronger without it. The relationship between Charlie and his ex-girlfriend is also underdeveloped, and there’s an element in which the thugs try to sabotage the craps game by sending in a ringer, which didn’t make a lot of sense. The only justification I can think of is that they didn’t want competition, but even then, it seems like bad business to shut somebody down while they’re trying to get the money you want them to repay.
These issues aside, Getting Back to Zero is mostly a fun look at the world of underground craps. I’ll confess that, like Derek, I knew nothing about the game at the beginning of the movie, and still know little. But the film manages to make this game of chance look interesting when it’s on the screen, and so as far as being entertaining is concerned, the movie meets its goal.