Screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien established themselves with the script for John Dahl’s entertaining poker film <I>Rounders</I>, and throughout their career they’ve returned to the world of high-stakes gambling in projects like <I>Ocean’s Thirteen</I> and the short-lived TV series <I>Tilt</I>. They’ve provided insight into the pathology of degenerate gamblers, but their script for <I>Runner Runner</I>, directed by Brad Furman, isn’t as funny, sharp, or surprising as their previous work.<P><P>
Justin Timberlake stars as Richie Furst, a Princeton grad student in finance who, as the film opens, is scraping together the pricey tuition by steering players toward a particular online poker site. When the dean tells him that he is not allowed to promote gambling on campus, Richie decides to use his entire savings as a stake at the gaming table in order to win enough to pay for the rest of his education.<P><P>
He loses, but knows he was cheated because he is too skilled to be defeated in a fair game. He has some nerdy Ivy League friends run some tests, and sure enough, he can mathematically prove that what happened to him was impossible. With the evidence in hand, Richie travels to Costa Rica to confront the website’s head honcho Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), who is allowed to operate freely because he pays off local police and politicians handsomely and regularly. Ivan is impressed by Richie’s tenacity, and offers the kid a job.<P><P>
As the former college student becomes familiar with every aspect of big-time gaming, he also discovers that his new boss has a dark side and may not be as trustworthy as he seems. When aggressive FBI agent Shavers (Anthony Mackie) threatens Richie with the possibility of never returning to the States if he doesn’t help bring down Ivan, the stage is set for the pupil to try to outsmart the teacher.<P><P>
You’ve seen all of this before. There’s nothing new in the story beats or in the movie’s construction; pretty much everybody knows that if there’s an early scene involving crocodiles being fed, there’s just got to be a moment later in which somebody is chomped to pieces. The screenwriters cook up some highly entertaining dialogue that Affleck and Mackie deliver as forcefully as the gators snap down on their prey, but there is little suspense here because we know all along exactly how this will end.<P><P>
Part of the problem is that Justin Timberlake, while not an untalented actor, doesn’t yet have the confident control of a leading man. He’s a born performer, and that oozes from every pore of his being at all times. That’s not to say he overacts, just that he’s always “on”; while that kind of energy is perfect in a live concert setting or in sketch comedy, onscreen it undercuts whatever he’s trying to communicate because it feels like “acting.” He’s been good in previous roles, especially his work in <I>The Social Network</I> playing a character whose entire life was a public performance, but here he comes across as too eager to please. His smirk, when he’s swimming in cash and has a beautiful woman draped on his arm, indicates self-satisfaction, and great film actors don’t indicate -- they just are.<P><P>
The phrase “runner runner” is a term used in Texas Hold ‘Em: It means that there are only two cards left to be dealt, and you need both of them to be the correct suit to complete your flush. It’s a bad hand to play, one that only succeeds four percent of the time according to a character in the movie. It’s also an apt description for the project as a whole, because the screenwriters only get the director halfway there. Furman needed some acting diamonds to pull it all together, but instead he got Timberlake.
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