The Crushed Film Festival presents: Rounders
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.
Tags: Edward Norton Famke Janssen Goran Visnjic Gretchen Mol hairdon'ts John Dahl John Malkovich John Turturro Martin Landau Matt Damon movies The Crushed Film Festival Woody Allen