Lookin’ To Get Out (1982)
Written by Jon Voight
Directed by Hal Ashby
For some reason, in the 1980s, Hal Ashby made three crime films and a pilot for a failed crime series. I have no idea why he was given this material or why he would be attracted to it. Throughout his 1970s work Ashby reflected a deeply anti-authoritarian theme, particularly toward law enforcement. That’s not to say these movies a pro-police, they traffic in annoying criminal cliches and don’t necessarily give their roguish protagonists anything interesting or unique to do.
Lookin’ to Get Out follows Alex Kovac (Jon Voight), a chronic gambler living in NYC who is down ten grand to his bookies. They have given him a day to find the money, or they hurt him, so Alex has recruited his best friend Jerry (Burt Young) to fly to Las Vegas and scam a casino out of the money. Jerry shares a name with a regular gambler at the hotel, and so he’s comped a room and chips by the staff. Before the duo can start earning their money back, Alex runs into an old flame Patti (Ann-Margret) who works there and has kept a big secret from Alex all these years.
Lookin’ to Get Out was Jon Voight’s screenwriting debut, and that amateurish nature is on display. This is not a complete failure, definitely not as incoherent as Second-Hand Hearts. However, it’s characters are not compelling or hugely likable. There are numerous scenes with Alex and Jerry simply laughing like kids at their dumb luck, and I guess these moments are meant to endear them to us. They do not. The writing is full of eye-rolling contrivances. Jerry happens to share the exact same name as a high roller that frequents the casino, yet the staff doesn’t know what he looks like? I would argue that our two main characters never really struggle to deal with the conflict of the movie, they sort of fall into coincidental good luck.
If this were a more smartly written picture, it could have done some exciting things with gambling addiction and the mechanics of the game. Compare this to the casino sequences in Rain Man, and you can see how tense and enjoyable playing cards can be made on film. Here it is dull and boring, losing a sense of momentum. It seems the plot is so focused on having a big slapstick moment where all parties are in the same room at the same time it doesn’t really care about the details. Is that slapstick moment worth it? Not at all.
The coincidences stack up to the point of absurdity. Alex happens to pick the casino where his former ex-lover now works. Okay. Oh yeah, and the waiter who brings room service up happens to be a genius Blackjack player from way back that Alex remembers from when he lived here. This is lazy writing. It would have made more sense to allow relationships to develop so that maybe Alex strikes up a conversation with the waiter and learns this fact about him. It feels stupid that this is a guy he happens to remember and run into after eight years of being away.
Voight fell into a nest of cliches while writing. There is the “hooker with a heart of gold” trope, “the magical streak of good luck,” and ultimately, Alex and Jerry suffer zero consequences for everything they have done. I guess Ashby signed onto this because he enjoyed working with Voight on Coming Home and was helping him out by directing his first script. There are, of course, stories about the studio making their own cut and releasing that, but Ashby’s was eventually put out in 2009. That’s the version I watched, and I can’t imagine how much worse the studio could have done. Just a few more films to go as we move through this disappointing period of Ashby’s life.