2007 marked a time of change. Steve Jobs introduced us to the original iPhone, thereby enslaving us in perpetuity to a tiny screen. NASA launched Phoenix, a spacecraft that landed on the north pole of Mars to test habitability and to research the pole’s water history so billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos can have a pissing contest. In the realm of sports, the NBA was rocked with a gambling scandal that (loosely) helped pave the way to legalizing sports gambling.
Inside Game explores how one group of friends took advantage of their unique situation, only to have it spiral out of control faster than Kyrie Irving’s flat Earth rhetoric. Mixing gambling, drugs, and alcohol is a recipe for disaster and one of the easiest ways to draw people into a plot. Add in a major sport like the NBA and this story should be enticing enough. Unfortunately, while Inside Game may be based on the facts, the telling leaves something to be desired.
Director: Randall Batinkoff
Release Date: November 1, 2019
Even though Tim Donaghy (played by Eric Mabius) was the epicenter of the scandal as the NBA referee, Inside Game chooses to tell the story through the eyes of his gambling cohort, Tommy Martino (Scott Wolf). As the middle man, Martino took calls from Donaghy and relayed the insider info to James Battista (Will Sasso), known to friends, family, and gambling syndicates as Baba. With access the general public doesn’t have, Donaghy would know long before others if a player was unlikely to play or if there was maligned discourse inside a locker room. This allowed him to notify Martino, who in turn told Battista, who then made bets accordingly. Throughout their run, they had an eighty percent win rate.
To make a movie like this and shy away from Donaghy as the lead cheapens the viewing experience. Throughout the film, he’s pushed to the fringes and comes across as a dullard with a gambling problem. While the latter may be accurate, the former feels ingenuine given his success rate. Early on, the story rushes into Donaghy’s dismissive love of his family (they’re often dismissive of him, too) as the high-priced house and private school his daughter wants to go to are forced upon him in unison as a mechanic to envoke viewer sympathy for his financial situation. It doesn’t land.
The same can be said for Martino and Battista. As the two take in bags of cash for bets and are flying high from their newfound money press, it doesn’t take long before Battista backslides (we don’t know he had a problem until the problem reappeared, thanks to spousal exposition) and pops oxy downed with liquor. When that doesn’t do the trick he turns to cocaine, further reeling and damaging his relationships and means of employment. Martino has a steady girl he wants to spend his life with, only to cheat on her when an escort in Atlantic City barely does more than smile at him. Then there’s the time he visits Donaghy and finds two women soaking in his bathtub. The choices made by each of these three friends throughout the film often feel out of nowhere, thereby negating any potential emotion they may have been working towards.
The goal of Inside Game isn’t to exonerate or rationalize Donaghy’s actions (which is good, because definitely does neither). Instead, it’s better served as a way for those unfamiliar with the scandal itself to become somewhat educated. The problem is, gambling (especially sports gambling) can be difficult to follow without prior knowledge. In one scene, Battista takes Donaghy’s advice on a game and attempts to show Martino (and the viewer) how with a few large bets he can make the spread (how much a team is favored to win by) move. It’s a frenetic scene that is more apt to leave the viewer with questions than answers, wondering what it was they just sat through.
It didn’t take long for the FBI to start investigating, and it took even less time for them to connect the dots. Unfortunately, the reality of how the FBI got involved isn’t fully explored so their entrance and feels abruptly sudden. The reality is that while investigating an organized crime family in New York, the FBI received a tip about an NBA ref fixing games. Once they got involved, it was all over for Donaghy and co. The culmination of getting caught and coming clean felt vapid and unfulfilling. For a major scandal like this one, the emotion never reached the peak it should have.
The film has a narrow target audience. Being a fan of the NBA helps and having a general knowledge of sports betting enhances the watch, which would make sitting through the film difficult for those with minimal interest in either. The aforementioned missing emotion reflects in the three main actors as well. This isn’t a big-budget picture, and viewers are reminded when scenes call for strong performances that fall short. Donaghy’s father has a shrine to his son’s basketball days of yore, and we’re reminded that Donaghy was “almost” an NBA player. This loses credibility when we see him taking free throws with the shooting form of Markelle Fultz when he had the yips. In another scene, afraid for his life, a paranoid Battista goes back and forth from his house to Martino’s, peering out windows and babbling in a way that’s more comical than fear-inducing.
While the reality of the true story is full of tantalizing details, the film doesn’t go to the depths it could. Instead, Inside Game opts to swim in the shallow end, which is too bad for a story that encircles sports, gambling, and crime families.