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Home » Culture and Criticism

14/31: Runner, Runner

Submitted by on January 14, 2015 – 5:55 PM7 Comments
Photo: Scott Garfield / 20th Century Fox

Photo: Scott Garfield / 20th Century Fox

What is it about gambling-related B movies with the word "runner" in the title? Why can't they suck less?

Runner, Runner is a B movie with many many problems, starting with the fact that it doesn't know it's a B movie. The plotting is predictable — hungry young buck lives the dream, loses himself, blah blah — and yet the script is elliptical on matters of jurisdiction; tells us more than it shows us about the dirty deeds of the villainous online-gambling tycoon, Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), who's corrupted our hero, Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake); uses Princeton business school as a shorthand for a certain aspirational career path — or tendency towards crookedness, a running gag I could have gotten behind, except Princeton does not in fact have a business school; and bores the viewer to goddamn death with ponderous voice-overs from Richie that turn poker into a metaphor for…poker. Or occasionally circumstances proceeding directly from the shitty playing of poker.

Writing about poker is like writing about baseball: its argot is already braided so tightly into our everyday speech — hitting home runs, going all in — that it gets farty in a hurry if you try to get too grand with it. Runner, Runner is written by the same guys who wrote Rounders, but it's the difference between watching The World Series Of Poker on ESPN and learning something from the commentary, and listening to that gasbag at your BIL's weekly game repeat the non-fascinating saga of something something flopping a three something boat who fucking cares, get to the end! Rounders has a sense of humor about itself, and explains its milieu; Runner, Runner takes itself deadly seriously, but its stakes seem lower, possibly because it hinges its inciting incident on a bad beat whose nuances non-players won't understand, and hangs a second key scene on craps, same problem. It's also hard to care about Timberlake, who is miscast (too old, too not-good) and forced to VO lines like, "This isn't poker; this is my life, and I have one play left. Push all my chips in, and hope to get lucky." But you just said this is your l…ife, not poker? And anyway going all in is a bet, not a play, exactly? And shut up?

Affleck is kind of interesting as Block; I'd like to see him play villains in the future. This portrayal misses, though. The script is aiming for a Gordon Gekko type, and Affleck gets the glibness and impatience of that sort of rich guy who's only interested in the rules he gets to make for other people, but something else is missing, the casual but omnipresent ruthlessness, the rage at getting bested. Anthony Mackie is fun as Agent Shavers, but his subplot is so poorly conceived across the board that it's hard to be happy to see him. I suppose we might charitably call Gemma Arterton's performance "opaque," but perhaps she read the part and thought that, since a cardboard stand-up could do the same work for the Rebecca "character," she'd just imitate one.

A self-absorbed, disorganized waste of time. Skip.

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  • Kara says:

    I fell asleep while watching this on a flight. And there you go.

  • attica says:

    Any poker movie that lacks Malkovich as Teddy KGB? Nope, nope nope!

    (I love Rounders so so much. It's def in my personal PFMCoF.)

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    ("Meester Son-Of-A-Beetch-eh")

  • Mingles' Mommy says:

    Timberlake – not an actor. At least, not as far as I've been able to tell.

  • Laurie says:

    I found Affleck's Block was pretty much the exact same character he played in Boiler Room, only in Boiler Room, he wasn't a big enough part of the story other than the smarmy win you over with a smile part that he played. I totally agree that while he has smarmy down pat, he could have taken Block a bit further to really let us see the villain the character was.
    Also, yes, not as exciting/interesting a movie as it could have been… I was pretty disappointed with the execution of something I had higher hopes for.

  • DensityDuck says:

    The people who try to write profound things about the similarity between poker and life always come off like that junior high school student who's just learned about a writing concept in English class and wants to try it out. Like, "dude, this 'metaphor' thing, it's really cool! It's like where a thing can be, like, one thing, but, like, also another thing, dude!"

  • Liz says:

    I know I'm late to this party here, but I just had to add: I saw the picturea at the top & thought "Hey, I like both those guys, maybe I should see this in spite of the bad review I can see forming." I was about halfway through reading when it hit me "oh, crap, I've totally seen this movie!" And recently! Wow, it was not even a little memorable.

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