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Home » Culture and Criticism

The Crushed Film Festival presents: Rounders

Submitted by on July 14, 2011 – 4:37 PM15 Comments

The Movie: Rounders

The Crush Object: Goran Visnjic

The Story: Law student Mike (Matt Damon) is also a savant poker player torn between his natural ability at — and affinity for — the card-playing life and a bright square future as a lawyer with a bright square future wife (Gretchen Mol as disappointed girlfriend Jo). It seems like he's going with the latter, having just lost his entire thirty-grand stake to local Russian mobster Teddy KGB (John Malkovich); he promises Jo he'll give up hold-'em for moot court.

Then his old friend and former running partner, Worm (Edward Norton), gets out of the joint and immediately back into trouble — scamming college kids, ducking old debts, borrowing against Mike's credit at card clubs. Soon, Mike is back to playing all night, lying to Jo, and facing an impossible loan payment in just a few days' time. Will either of his mentors, card "grinder" Joey Knish (John Turturro) and Judge Petrovsky (Martin Landau), come to his rescue? Can he play his way out of trouble?

I believe Rounders had, for several years, a reputation as a garden-variety flop, a thuddish and faintly embarrassing follow-up to Damon's coming-out party with Good Will Hunting; it's also frequently cited as "the movie whose Vanity-Fair-cover PR killed Gretchen Mol's career." Mol's career didn't really die so much as divert into shite TV and tertiary Woody Allen for a while, but she's safely settled into Boardwalk Empire now, and the pendulum has swung back on the film itself of late, which is indicated.

And it's a fine movie, a solid B. John Dahl, best known for '90s noir like The Last Seduction, gets outstanding performances from the cast: Landau is brilliant with a speech about leaving the yeshiva that on paper is plodding and obvious; Norton, whose didactic choices usually lead to performances I don't care for, gives dimension to a guy who is, on balance, more trouble than he's worth; I looked forward to each scene with Turturro's Knish, and wondered why the movie hadn't focused on him instead. ("Turturro doesn't open," of course, but a girl can dream.) And what can you say about Malkovich, having the time of his honey-baked life as KGB. "In my clab I vill splesh the pat venever the FACK I please." "Okehhh, Meester Son Of A Beeetch-eh." Roger that, Uta Hagenov. I mean, the guy is listening to Oreos. It's amazing.

Mol turns in a perfectly serviceable performance with the most thankless female part in film: the disapproving/uptight S.O. who can't hang with our hero's basic nature. It doesn't help that, here, the movie could have climbed into A-minus territory just by scotching her subplot entirely and not creating a conflict between poker and straight life where none needed to exist, but acting-wise, she's fine.

Damon, meanwhile, is doing his thing — making a corny VO play; thinking through his reactions; relating his character to real people and situations in minutes. When Mike comes home to find Jo cleared out, Damon runs through a series of emotions and faces that they should really teach in acting class, the admiring smirk, the panic, the sadness, the half-sentences and futile kicking of a chair. Watching that guy work is plain fun, even when he has crappily obvious blond highlights, as he does here.

It's got narrative problems; it's got accent problems (I love you, Famke Janssen, but Brooklyn is not a town in Missouri); the last 45 minutes is too slow. Cut away 20 minutes of Mike agonizing about how real grownups don't play cards for a living blah blah, and the snappy, tart, Rat-Packy movie within that you see in the A.C. scenes could come out and kill it. As is, it is in fact a bit disappointing, and it suffered from comparisons to Saving Private Ryan (prestigious award bait) and GWH (not a good movie on the merits, but it felt fresh and new at the time).

But it's not as floppy as people said. It's good. People wanted great, and it's not that, which sometimes happens.

The Backstory: This is, return-on-investment-wise, probably the most embarrassing of the Visnjic entries in the CFF. He's onscreen for all of 71 seconds; he has maybe three lines of dialogue, two of them in Russian; and he's wearing a 150-decibel silk shirt that I think is intended for ladies.

He still looks great, though.

The Embarrassment Level: Two hours of movie for one minute of the Croatian Sensation is appalling, but the movie is fine, so I'll let myself off with a 4.

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15 Comments »

  • ferretrick says:

    I watched this movie w/a buddy shortly after it hit DVD. The only thing I remember about it is that he was still living at home and we watched it with his very sweet, but very conservative Catholic mother in the house. The soundtrack was seriously f'd up. They all kept talking in mumbles and we could barely make out the dialogue. Then, we'd turn it up, and EVERY TIME, within minutes everybody would be screaming cuss words and we'd have to jump up and turn it back down so his mom wouldn't hear. This went on through the entire damn movie, which is probably why I don't remember it. Spent more time fiddling with the sound than actually watching it.

  • Another Elizabeth says:

    Ugh, the disapproving/uptight SO who can't hang. I hate that character. Especially when her objections are totally reasonable, like "maybe I don't want my SO hanging with Russian mobsters" (this) or "chasing tornadoes seems really dangerous and stupid, actually" (Twister) or "I just realized I'm dating a manchild who's scared of all women except his mom and thinks Fritos are a food group" (every buddy movie and beer commercial ever).

    Once, just once, I wish the movie would veer off with the woman and acknowledge that hey, this guy actually is a mess, so let's get you out of here and set you up with the Good Guy But Does He Make You Laugh male lead who keeps getting ditched for freewheeling bad-boys in chick flicks.

  • Chris says:

    I totally agree with the Goran Visnjic-love. I even love him in the Madonna video. That's commitment.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    I remember watching this and thinking that Mol's character was superfluous to the story, and that she knew it–you can sometimes sense when an actor knows his/her scenes will or should be cut–but the savaging she got for the VF cover was unfair and the savagers knew it, even at the time. But somebody had to pay for Matt's "first follow up" not being as great as it "should" have been, and heaven forfend it be one of the [male] leads.

    I went to this more for Norton then Damon–he was really riding that "super duper acting-est actor in his generation" wave at the time, and he delivers here, with that guy who just won't, won't, won't update his skill set in dealing with the life he leads and doesn't have quite the charm he thinks he does to cover his deficiencies.

  • Rachel says:

    I do not share your Goran Visnjic love, so we don't have to share and you're welcome but I have serious lovings for Matt Damon. I used to be "shmeh" about him until the Bourne trilogy happened and then oh mah gah, whoa.

    I liked Rounders okay, and I agree completely with your assessment of Gretchen Mol. In this, she's fine. In nearly everything else, ever, she bugs, and it is only my fierce and abiding love for 90s-vintage Jude Law that I subject myself to "Music From Another Room" pretty much whenever it's on TV (which is ALWAYS).

    Not unrelated, but I am SO OVER poker. Every time I see that ESPN 8 is doing another hold-'em tourney, I ask "oh, that? We're still doing that?"

  • Jaybird says:

    I'm with Rachel on the Damon lurve. For reasons I've listed in the past, ad nauseam. This is one of those movies that I've seen in part about fifty times, and every single frigging time it's been that one scene (the one from which the above screen shot was taken), so I didn't really even know Janssen was in it. Or Visnjic. Or…anyone other than Damon and Norton, really.

  • Sandman says:

    OH MY GOD, my ears (and brain) still haven't recovered from the Malkovich. How did Gretchen Mol become the target for all that scorn when Teddy's enormous erzatz-Slavic elephant is in the room?

    Watching that guy work is plain fun, even when he has crappily obvious blond highlights, as he does here.

    Cosigned; both parts. Hew.

  • attica says:

    Friends and I still use "Okehhh, Meester Son Of A Beeetch-eh." nearly daily, that's how much we love the velveeta/gouda/brie that is The Malkovich in this movie. You know that story about the Bradley Ruderman ponzi scheme? It was in the papers lately about Tobey Maguire being sued for poker winnings off of Ruderman, and when the article mentioned that Matt Damon was another at the table, we immediately exclaimed that line in unison. How could we not?

    I agree, it's a better movie than was given credit at the time. I'm kinda fond of the hardcore jargon in the dialog; it works for evoking a world I wouldn't ordinarily know.

    Also: Joey Knish is an awful name, but hooray to Turturro for making such a ridiculous moniker into something with some grace.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    "Peh the mayn hees moaney." [hand-flapping] Talk about a joy to watch work. I mean, it's out there, but Malkovich is enough of a pro to know that there is really no other way to play the character as written, so he's like, well, I'm here, the check cleared, let's at least keep things interesting.

  • Cara says:

    @Rachel, Music from Another Room is so bad it's almost compelling. I'm sure we're supposed to find the characters charmingly quirky but they all have tics and neuroses instead of actual personalities. Also, when Jeremy Piven is one of the more subtle actors in your movie, you've got problems.

    Wow. I forgot how enthusiastically I hate that movie.

    Back to Rounders! I haven't seen it, but I think that the combo of Turturro and Visnjic might get me to watch it.

  • Rachel says:

    @Cara – I KNOW! The Piv is awesome in that (relatively speaking). The premise, the subplots (oooohhhh Jennifer Tilly, did you lose a bet?), the soundtrack (Savage Garden LOL)… but I watch it. Every time. Between Jude Law and the criminally under-used Martha Plimpton, that is some kind of magic movie cheese, right there.

    Back to Rounders: I may or may not have put this on the Netflix queue just to re-watch the Malkovich.

  • Sandman says:

    Please. I know you're all pretending not to hate the Mahlkhoveetch just to toy with me.

  • Sara says:

    "I steeck it in you!" In college, my roommate and I lived downstairs from two of our friends who were OBSESSED with this movie. Every time we went into their apartment, it was on, so as a result, I've seen it in bits and pieces (only once continuously, I think) about a hundred times. John Malkovich was definitely the best part, to me, and the most quotable. I should watch it again to see how it hits me.

  • Jaybird says:

    On the jargon front, how likely–or even possible–is it that I'd be able to follow what's going on in this, given that I have the poker acumen of a Teletubby?

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Hey, a Teletubby took all my money at seven-card stud. And then I shot him.

    Just kidding. I don't know poker well at all; it's not so jargony that you can't follow it (the story is more about the psychology, which isn't hard to get into).

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