“The house always wins.”
Justin Timberlake is already having a busy week. The back half of The 20/20 Experience was released this past Monday and with so much anticipation and excitement surrounding Timberlake’s foremost profession, the fact that he’s the star of a new movie this week is even less than a second thought. Not that it’s possible to ever get too much Justin Timberlake, it can be hard to balance one professional Timberlake from the other. He’s so versatile, so indubitably talented, and he possesses a public persona that is infectious, admirable, and desired. He’s the kind of celebrity that you want to be best friends with. It’s for that reason, unfortunately, that Justin Timberlake as an actor can be so oddly distracting. While his acting chops are without question, it’s hard to not immediately see Justin Timberlake on screen. The characters Timberlake takes on are more variations of Timberlake himself than a representation of a totally separate human being. Therefore, Richie Furst, the protagonist of Brad Furman’s Runner Runner, is the newest screen creation to be Timberlake’d, and the most distinct example of Timberlake’s inability to shed his immeasurable fame and completely become an actor with nuancing abilities.
Furman’s film is pretty straightforward. A former Wall Street whiz kid, Richie finds himself jobless and penniless and goes back to school with the intention of earning his Masters in finance from Princeton University. Richie’s gifted with numbers and he’s picking up extra money operating as an affiliate for a big time online poker website. The Dean threatens Richie with expulsion, effectively defending the campus’ ‘No Gambling’ policy. This leads to Richie recklessly putting all of his faith in the poker website that he works for, multi-tabling online with hopes of winning enough to cover his forthcoming tuition payment. When things go very poorly, Richie discovers that he’s been cheated by another player and he intends on approaching the website’s founder – FBI unfavorable Ivan Block (Ben Affleck) – and demanding his money be returned. Richie maneuvers his way into a brief face-to-face with Block, whose surprisingly responsive and not only compensates Richie’s loss, but offers Richie a potentially lucrative position in his gambling empire. Richie excitedly commits but soon finds himself in a twisted world of true criminals, all of which are demanding a piece of Block’s head. His role in Block’s company has potentially condemned him whether it be on the selfish part of the gambling tyrant or by the forceful FBI agent (Anthony Mackie) closing in.
Runner Runner is operational entertainment: It adequately creates a reactionary response and finely takes up audiences’ viewing time. Though this sounds tame, it’s actually the film’s biggest flaw. The response is very limited, mostly because the material is serviceable for the duration and then quickly fades from viewers’ minds. In fact, I can barely remember the film’s plot arc as we speak and I just saw the film a couple of hours ago. Every bit of the film operated at the high of 60%, with various peaks and valleys throughout, and while it never felt like a waste of time, it did feel like the least common denominator version of something much more dense and refined. With the various credits of all of those involved, it’s pretty frustrating to see their real abilities marginalized for an hour and a half.
Back to Timberlake; it’s a shame what Runner Runner proved to me tonight. The Social Network was made only that much better by the inspiring casting of Justin Timberlake as Napster founder Sean Parker and it examined a whole new talent intoxicating fans and non-fans of the musical superstar alike. With follow-up efforts Friends With Benefits, In Time, and even grittier early work like Alpha Dog and Black Snake Moan, Timberlake’s image on screen just signifies the near brand he has become as a pop artist/actor. His raw abilities of the latter are unfairly overshadowed by the former and it’s going to keep affecting his work until he can give his screen persona a stark contrast.
Aside from the ‘Suit & Tie’ soloist, the scorching Gemma Arterton provides a hard to read, though considerably underdeveloped love interest. She’s got an inviting accent from across the pond, and she’s made-up like the woman pervading through all men’s dreams, but she is relegated to a sideline role. Yet, she is one of the most beautiful sideline characters as of late. Argo champion, Ben Affleck, reverses my expectation for scene-chewing and actually plays baddie Ivan Block with some winning dry humor. His threats are mostly empty – there’s never the ‘this guy is really bad news’ moment that is supposed to ignite the audience’s hate in the antagonist – but he’s fun to watch on screen. He yells and broods and does very un-Afflackian things, but he also underplays the kingpin. Affleck provides a sense of danger – a sense that never amounts to much, unfortunately – and operates as if part of a much better picture. It’s a testament to Affleck’s ego and abilities, the awards and career revival haven’t made him to good for work like Runner Runner, and when he participates in subpar work, he works double time to elevate it. On paper, it’s a weird bit of casting, but on screen he’s the movie’s biggest contribution.
Though director Brad Furman remains under-the-radar for now, his biggest accomplishment to date is giving Matthew McConaughey the ego-push to revive his own career when he starred in Furman’s previous film, The Lincoln Lawyer. With Lawyer, Furman made it clear that he was a director to be watched with stylized camerawork and crisp twirls around the stampeding central plot. Runner Runner’s plotline is a little more run of the mill than Lawyer’s so there’s little that Furman’s polishing can do to make it truly pop, even paired with Affleck’s eye-catching performance. Effectually, however, the movie is shot on film, giving the luxurious coasts and mansions of Costa Rica a sun-baked gloss, and then elasticizing the grime-filled shadows around the slums and back alleys when the story decides it’s time to get a little darker. And the story is the film’s most familiar component, crafted by the same writing duo as the late ‘90’s hit, Rounders, which featured a crackling script almost overloaded with poker and gambling jargon that the poker Wikipedia page was necessary while watching. Runner Runner only shows off the duo’s real understanding of the game during its early few minutes, then the ‘thriller’ takes over and before long it’s not much about gambling at all.
Just halfway through the first act, Richie’s roommate lays out Richie’s naïve plan, step by step, in an effort to tell him how absurd it sounds. In effect, the roommate allows for us to stop caring about Runner Runner at that moment. The movie, with all of its glaring problems, is made for brisk enjoyment, and Furman’s grasp on these amiable intentions is what makes each misstep less detrimental that it could have been. At 90 minutes, the flick’s hardly an investment, and with some snappy, and actually very funny dialogue, it’s the perfect ‘it was on TV’ movie that you won’t hate yourself for catching on a lazy Sunday afternoon. It’s hot and attractive, very easy to digest, with some moments of flavor, a color-by-numbers frill destined for programming on one of those genre-specific HBO channels that you didn’t even know came with your premium subscription package.
Therefore don’t raise or bet all the hard ways because this house isn’t exactly a winner. Take your pocket chips and cash out, the table is fizzling; the chances of you finding something beyond surface level entertainment here is equivalent to hitting a runner runner flush in Texas Hold’em.
The percentage of such a feat: 4% chance.
Review by Mike Murphy