Gambling movies can be anything: classics (“The Hustler” or “The Cincinnati Kid” – click here for my review), serious (“Rounders” – click here for my review) or the exceptionally dark (“The Cooler”) and even funny (well, it’s an example, but “Vegas Vacation” is an utter failure in the humor department if you split hairs). However, some can try to bridge a combination of the above and a prime example is the little-remembered “Let It Ride” from 1989. It has what shaped up to be a sensational cast and a decent plot, but it falls short of just about every one of your expectations. Still, it managed to be watchable and you can’t say that about every movie. I’ll give you 5-1 on that!
‘Let It Ride’
(1989; 90 minutes; rated PG-13; directed by Joe Pytka and starring Richard Dreyfuss, Teri Garr and David Johansen)
HE’S HAVING A VERY GOOD DAY
(NOTE: I expanded this review with some additional opinion and trivia and the updating of links on Oct. 28, 2018. I expanded the review again on Jan. 17, 2020 and then again on April 25, 2020, with the passing of a supporting actor.)
I recently reviewed a Richard Dreyfuss movie that should have been better than it is and I really couldn’t identify why. That was “The Big Fix” from 1978 (click here for my review) and now I’ll say the same thing about another of his films titled “Let It Ride.” The former is a detective story, while the latter is a gambling story – and both are genres that offer a core of personalities.
“Let It Ride” has all the components of what should shape up as a good film: A top-shelf, talented headliner (Dreyfuss); a quirky, talented supporting cast (Teri Garr and a really quirky David Johansen); a neat storyline with good one-liners; and the ability to overcome a few potentially fatal stereotypes.
So, what happened?
Well, most of all, it has an inexperienced director – he’s called the “King of Commercials” in one IMDb.com entry and I guess he should have stuck with them. “Let It Ride” was Joe Pytka’s first feature film and he would only do one more (“Space Jam,” the one where basketball star Michael Jordan helps “Bugs Bunny” and the Loony Tunes characters). Pytka doesn’t handle the cast of “Let It Ride” well; he doesn’t handle the film’s pacing well; and the only good thing you can say of his effort here is that he apparently let the camera crew do its job without too much interference.
In any case, “Let It Ride” is the story of Dreyfuss, who plays “Jay Trotter” (the stereotypes start early with his name). He’s a cab driver and separated from his wife and looking to get back together with her. There’s just this slight problem … he’s a degenerate gambler. Then, just as he’s vowed to quit gambling in an attempt at reconciliation, he gets a hot tip from another cab driver, who likes to record his passengers’ conversations, tapes a couple of guys talking about a fixed race at the horse track for the coming weekend.
Of course, this sets off a variety of ills when Dreyfuss and his fellow driver and best friend “Looney,” played wonderfully by David Johansen, go to the track to bet the race.
I like that there is enough horse-racing detail here: From talk among the watchers as horses are on parade; to betting habits; and, ultimately, gamblers’ superstitions. The most hilarious is in the details of one story about Dreyfuss’ degeneracy while gambling (how he pulled out his hidden stash of money while in line). Toss in the assorted oddballs and freaks that comprise his world and you should have a sure winner.
Of course, by going to the track he nearly wrecks his chances with his wife (“Pam Trotter” played with a totally solid effort by Teri Garr) and sets off a chain-reaction of events and crisis for a variety of people. Although totally annoyed with Dreyfuss, Garr even comes to the track and gets wrapped up in more arguments.
The name of the movie comes from Dreyfuss winning his bet on the fixed race and then rolling over his substantial winnings to the next race (he “lets it ride”) and the next and the next. Unlike “Rounders,” which is a deadly accurate poker movie, “Let It Ride” doesn’t dwell much on the minutiae of horse racing betting. The film offers just the right amount of detail about betting on horses and it doesn’t bog you down with too many details that could have easily made the film even more tedious.
Here’s a rundown of some of the primary cast:
- An Oscar winner and nominee (not for this one), Dreyfuss is his usual smooth-talking, funny and slightly off-kilter self here and you wouldn’t be far off comparing his character to the one he played in “Tin Men.” It’s no surprise that the fast-talking “Trotter” isn’t at the same level as Dreyfuss in his Oscar-winning effort for “The Goodbye Girl,” but he isn’t bad here and is worth watching. He received his nomination for the execrably saccharine “ Holland’s Opus” and is much more recognizable from “Jaws” and “American Graffiti.” He did an energetic job in a small role as gangster “George ‘Baby Face’ Nelson” in “Dillinger” (click here for my review).
- A musician first and an actor second, Johansen does a wonderfully psycho “Looney.” He’s up; he’s down; he’s all around. Of course, he’s the world’s worst gambler in the film and Dreyfuss always bets against whatever he’s betting. Johansen is marvelous as his character steals scenes right and left with his moronic, lunatic acts. Johansen has done films such as “Scrooged” and “Married to the Mob” (click here for my review) and his first acting credit is an episode of TV’s “Miami Vice.” Johansen has more soundtrack credits than acting credits – and check out my note about his music career at the end of this review.
- Another Oscar nominee (not for this one), Garr is solid with her ditzy energy and plays off Dreyfuss well. It’s a bit meatier role than she played as the ditz in “Tootsie” with Dustin Hoffman (however, she was nominated for an Oscar for that), and she manages to leaven her character from swinging too far back and forth with her emotions. However, she doesn’t manage to elevate the character the way she did in “Tootsie.” Garr was wonderful in “ Mom” and has also been in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
- I’ve never been a fan of the Tilly sisters (I say add they are like the Baldwin brothers – take their collective IQs and you won’t reach double digits), but Jennifer, an Oscar nominee (not for this one), does a good job here. She’s “Vicki” and she’s wedged into (and coming out of) a red dress that pleases her sugar daddy. Tilly rises above the vapid, greedy woman you meet first (in the film; not real life) and her character has a transformation, of course, by the end. It’s actually a major-league performance lost in this muddled film. She was nominated for “Bullets Over Broadway” and I especially liked her in “Liar Liar” with Jim Carrey (click here for my review). Tilly was also in a pair of absolutely horrible films: “Moving Violations” (click here for my review) and “Johnny Be Good” (click here for my review).
- Allen Garfield gives the best supporting performance in the cast, edging out Tilly for this evaluation. He’s a delight as “Greenberg,” a big bettor who flaunts his money and his paid-for mistress (Tilly). He’s egotistical here but shows a bit of humanity when he whines about Dreyfuss not sharing a tip on a winning horse. Garfield has given some excellent performances in films such as “The Conversation” with Gene Hackman and “Teachers” with Nick Nolte. He was also in “Beverly Hills Cop II.” Garfield died in April 2020 at 80 of complications from the COVID-19 virus.
- Robbie Coltrane, who would go on to bigger things in the “Harry Potter” franchise as “Hagrid,” plays the “Ticket Seller” who knows Dreyfuss inside-and-out. Coltrane breezes through the role as if it was written specifically for him – every shrug, glance of his eyes or expression is perfect and on cue. I also enjoyed Coltrane’s work in the 007 thriller “GoldenEye” (click here for my review).
By the end of the film, Dreyfuss has won each of the races he’s bet on and the final race, like the first, is a photo finish. The end is stereotypical either way: if he wins it’s feel-good and he gets Garr back or if he loses he’ll win by getting Garr back. The ending comes off OK and isn’t soaked in stereotype. I won’t give a spoiler here other than to write that he does get Garr back.
In the end, more than a few things do not work out. Maybe it’s the age of the film, but since when in the past generation was the “Jockey Club” at a racetrack the provenance of the rich? People in the track’s restaurant looking down at the hoi polloi as something beneath them? Really? Also, while Dreyfuss and Garr try, there’s no real romance between them. They both do good jobs, but just at different levels.
So, despite all its assets, “Let It Ride” comes up short by a nose (pun intended).
“Let It Ride” was the 111th-ranked film of 1989 with an anemic $4.9 million in ticket sales (in most markets it was a straight-to-video offering), according to Box Office Mojo. It was a flop with investors, too, as its budget was $18 million, according to Wiki. The No. 1 film of the year was “Batman” with $251.1 million, while at No. 2 was “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” with $197.1 million (how the latter didn’t beat the former is a complete mystery to me). Other films from that year that I have reviewed include:
- “Christmas Vacation” (iconic holiday flick) – click here for my review
- “Harlem Nights” (excellent Murphy-Pryor) – click here for my review
- “How I Got into College” (creative comedy) – click here for my review
- “Major League” (baseball comedy classic) – click here for my review
- “Parenthood” (excellent family drama) – click here for my review
- “Road House” (mediocre Swayze) – click here for my review
- “Uncle Buck” (classic comedy from John Hughes) – click here for my review
- “Weekend at Bernie’s” (great light comedy) – click here for my review
Assorted cast and film notes via IMDb.com:
- Adapted from a novel called “Good Vibes,” the original screenwriter had her name removed from the credits. I can see why.
- Johansen had a music persona called “Buster Poindexter” and he had musical appearances on “Saturday Night Live” while his most popular song was 1987’s megahit “Hot Hot Hot” from his studio album. He is also the former frontman of the “New York Dolls.”
- A pre-“Sex and the City” and five-time Golden Globe nominee, Cynthia Nixon does a turn as a teenage girlfriend of one of the gamblers. She’s just OK here, but there’s not much to work with for her. In an earlier film, she did a much better job playing a high school student in the nuclear bomb thriller “The Manhattan Project.” Four of her five nominations are for “Sex and the City.”
- The track where “Let It Ride” was filmed is the famed Hialeah race track on the outskirts of Miami. It is now called Hialeah Park Racing & Casino. One of the track’s longstanding traditions is the flock of flamingos that is show in the film.
- Directly from IMDb.com: “According to Rating the Movies, ‘the movie was filmed mostly at Florida’s Hialeah racetrack.’ The Hialeah Race Course is located in south Florida and the picture was shot there during the track’s off-season. Racing was also conducted at nearby Calder Race Course, and Dreyfuss was spotted on several occasions, presumably researching his role as Trotter. Although this classic track was closed for many years, the facility was reopened in 2009 offering only Quarter Horse racing as opposed to the Thoroughbred Racing that Hialeah traditionally offered.”
- Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “Actor David Johansen can be seen wearing a Bushwood Country Club hat from the movie Caddyshack early in the film.”
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