In the last film we reviewed, Ben was introduced to “Nice Richard Dreyfuss” playing the wistful, cameo-narrator in the Rob Reiner-directed/Steven King-written coming-of-age story Stand by Me. Which is why I thought it important to introduce him to one of the lovable rat-bag characters that have always brought out the best in Dreyfuss.
In the 1989 hidden gem Let it Ride, Dreyfuss plays Jay Trotter, a lovable shmuck of a cab driver who has just promised Pam, his much put-upon wife (played by Teri Garr), that he will grow up, get serious, and really work at their marriage, a promise that includes not wasting time and money at the horse track.
But then Trotter runs into his pal Looney, an even dirt-baggier cabbie with a fondness for tape-recording conversations that take place in the back of his hack, who spills the beans that he caught some recent passengers talking about a fix that was in at the next day’s races.
It’s not gambling if it’s a sure thing, right? So, once their shifts end, Trotter and Looney are at the race track, ready to place their bet. But not before stopping at their favorite dive bar where fellow gamblers/losers pound beer in the AM while sharing their schemes of how to beat the odds.
As it turns out, Trotter’s first win is part of a streak that continues in race after race as he continues to “let it ride,” placing one bet after another based on increasingly outlandish and superstitious techniques for picking the next winner.
As his streak continues, Trotter migrates from that grotty bar to “The Club” where well-to-do locals hang out, watch the races, and try to figure out what to make of the increasingly lucky cabbie (who finally wears out his welcome by breaking into unholy shrieks, declaring “God likes me!!! He really, REALLY LIKES ME!!! upon his latest win).
“I’m having a great day!” he continues to tell anyone who will listen, including a frantic Pam who keeps wondering if she’ll ever see him again (and if she does, if she’ll be relieved or kill him).
While Dreyfuss is terrific, and the horse-race backdrop of the film novel, what really made this film transcend was the collection of quirky characters – both high-life and low-life – Trotter encounters during his “great day.”
David Johensen as Looney steals nearly every scene he’s in (my favorite being one in which he’s selling his blood to pay for his next bet, smoking a cigarette and scanning the racing form, with a needle and bag attached to his arm). And Garr has never been more lovingly distraught. But even small roles are played with comic and dramatic texture, from the security guard who first arrests Dreyfuss then becomes his bodyguard, to the lovable giant who collects fees for clearing people away from the track fence so that his clients can get closer views of the races.
Speaking of lovable giants, Robbie Coltrane (yup - Hagrid from the Harry Potter films) does a fabulous turn as the “ticket-man” who takes Dreyfuss’ bets, turning his cash into “tickets” that then get turned back into cash as “the streak” continues. At first, Coltrane treats Trotter like the two-dollar betting loser he usually is, but as the hero continues to “let it ride,” Contrane’s attitude moves from respect to awe to love for a man willing to risk it all.
That’s an emotional trajectory I shared as I watched this lovable doofus have the day he may not have deserved, but certainly earned.
Ben responds: I’m with you on this one. Richard Dreyfuss is an amazing onscreen force in almost every moment he appears. The non-believers he’s surrounded with are similarly funny and contribute to the film’s tightness, wit and humor. I was a particular fan of the way the movie moved along in real time. It’s a genuine unfolding of everything this slimy man does in a few hours at the horse races. Without such a capable performer at the center spitting, yelling, pleading and celebrating, this movie would be almost as boring as a day at the real horse races.