On the one hand, I have a considerable background in sportsbetting, so I came to Bookies from a more informed perspective than most viewers would.
On the other hand, my sportsbetting knowledge and experience only overlaps a little bit with the subject of this film, which is college kids becoming bookies with all their customers being fellow students. So I can critique the realism to some extent, but not as confidently as I could if it were about, say, online gambling with offshore sportsbooks.
Three college buddies get sick of losing to their bookie and decide to become bookies themselves. They market primarily to rich fraternity kids. Soon they have a booming business, and are making—and spending—money hand over fist, which raises the suspicion of the campus police and raises the ire of the local mob-connected bookies with whom they’re inadvertently in competition. Things get rather dicey for them.
There are small elements of comedy or satire to the movie, but I would say it’s 90% drama.
In terms of realism, again I can’t assess it with total confidence, but certainly there are things that seemed off to me.
For one thing, at that level, where it’s just college kids taking bets from college kids, it’s hard to believe they would need this degree of cloak and dagger stuff. In order to drum up business, the bookies pretend they’re just satisfied customers of some other (fictitious) bookie and give out his (really their) phone number. When it comes time to settle, they institute an elaborate system where people stash the money in certain obscure library books that they pick up later.
Almost all of my experience has been with offshore as I say, but in my limited experience with in-person local bookies, and my conversations with people who bet with such bookies, there is never any hidden identity stuff. When it’s time to settle up, you meet at a bar or some agreed on place, and you hand your bookie money or he hands you money. As simple as that.
But what’s worse, their scheme is idiotic. How in the world does such a system prevent people from finding out who you are? Every one of your customers knows your payoffs get stashed in library books; how difficult is it to simply sit at the library and watch who picks up those books?
Here’s another realism issue: In the real world, bookies nearly always pay, and customers frequently don’t. In the movie, the mob bookies simply welch when they want to. To people who don’t know about these things, that probably makes sense. They’re crooks after all; of course they’ll steal from you.
But in fact, criminals or not, mob-connected or not, bookmaking is a business providing a service, and it’s horrible for a bookie’s reputation to welch on a legitimate bet. In my experience, professional bookies are pretty damn reliable about such things. And when they do welch, it wouldn’t be because they’re crooks, but because they’re small timers who got in over their head and are broke. If anything, you’re probably more likely to get paid when you win if you’re dealing with someone with mob connections.
On the flip side, customers lay down all the time. It’s a major hazard of this line of work. Maybe in extreme cases bookies will still go break their legs or something, but for the most part bookies eat the laydowns as a cost of doing business.
Because of that, as a bookie you’re real careful about how much credit to extend to a customer. You generally start them off low, and only if they prove reliable about paying when they lose do you gradually bump up their limits and their settle point.
In the movie, though, the student bookies let these college kids make wildly high bets, and the kids always pay when they lose. I know they’re supposed to be rich kids and all that, but no way these guys are going to collect these amounts week after week after week from a bunch of kids without a hitch, and then have a professional bookie be the one to stiff them.
But I would say on the whole that isn’t so unrealistic as to be ridiculous or ruin the movie.
Moving beyond the realism issue, mostly I enjoyed this movie.
The main characters are reasonably well acted, with Johnny Galecki especially standing out. (He’s David from Roseanne. I always liked him on that show, considering him easily the best of the non-original cast members.) Galecki plays the bookie who gets deeper and deeper into drugs as they make more money. He’s very good at capturing the way drugs cause such a person to become more and more hyper, paranoid, cocky, and certainly reckless. His deterioration into worse and worse judgment—to the growing alarm of his partners—is the most gripping aspect of the movie.
One of the bookies acquires a girlfriend during the story, but she adds very little. It just feels like an excuse for the film to have a romantic angle, but that part of the story is pretty much a dud.
The mob characters are the most caricatured, satirical part of the film. They’re ominous to some degree too, but they’re somewhat played for laughs. They’re actually kind of entertaining, but probably the movie would have been better had it played them more straight.
The filmmakers toss in an occasional gimmick to quicken the pace and heighten the feeling of action, like running a few seconds of the film in fast motion, but that mostly just comes across as silly.
By the way, the main characters get part of the money they need to start their bookmaking business by having one of them take out a student loan. I had to chuckle when I saw that (and chuckle when I read a review single that out as a particularly unethical act of theirs), because my first semester of graduate school I got a student loan for $4,000-$5,000 and I immediately took it to Vegas to play blackjack as a card counter.
But the main thing I can say about this film is that it had me involved and interested pretty much from start to finish. I see so many films—including good films and films that I end up liking—that take considerable effort to watch. Bookies is a breeze to watch. Not that it’s pure escapist fluff and completely lacks ethical issues and things worth thinking about, but purely on an entertainment level it scored with me. Only maybe 10% of the movies I’ve written about so far have held my interest as easily as this one did.
One thing I appreciated—rare in sports and gambling movies—is that it wasn’t predictable. Often it wasn’t easy for me to guess how a certain big bet was going to come out. Along the way, it wasn’t painfully obvious if I was watching a movie about how these bookies get too big for their britches and meet a tragic demise, or a movie about how they overcome a few rough spots early, hit it big, and live happily ever after.
The ending is clever and interesting, though certainly shaky in terms of realism. Not bad though.
Bookies is not a great movie certainly, not anything super deep, but I’d say it’s a slightly pleasant surprise compared to what I might have expected.
Recommended, for the value of its entertaining story.