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Runner, Runner

October 4, 2013
Runner, Runner

Gee, wealth and glamour certainly is a source of temptation. That’s about the depth of Runner, Runner, a run-of-the-mill potboiler that’s entertaining enough for an hour and a half, but ultimately not all that satisfying.

Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) can’t seem to catch a break. He was up on Wall Street, about a year out from a big partnership when his company collapsed in the crash. Now he’s at Princeton, working on his master’s degree in finance, and financing that by working as an affiliate for an online gambling site, recruiting and maintaining new customers. Of course, the dean doesn’t like gambling on his campus and cuts that off, so Richie turns to playing online poker himself.

Of course he loses here too, but this time it’s a little more complicated. With the help of his math and physics friends he runs some statistical analyses of the play and turns up clear-cut evidence of cheating. Convinced, for some reason, of the essential honesty of a man who runs an offshore gambling operation in contravention of U.S. law, he decides to head down to Costa Rica to bring the evidence directly to Ivan Block (Ben Affleck).

Ivan not only apologizes to Richie, he turns around and offers a job with a guarantee of tens of millions of dollars within a few years. And Richie, of course, takes it. And hey, a casino packed with beautiful women and pretty things — treated almost interchangeably, natch — is pretty alluring. Sure, there are payoffs to local officials, but that’s just how the gambling business works in Costa Rica, right? And that FBI agent (Anthony Mackie) who occasionally shows up to kidnap Richie or one of his friends, asking them to turn evidence against Ivan? he’s just jealous, right?

Timberlake gives a good performance as a naïve kid who gets in way over his head. The one big catch is that I don’t know if I buy Richie being this innocent. He’s already been up and down on Wall Street and he doesn’t think the guys running the game like it rigged? Hell, he grew up with a degenerate gambler as his father (John Heard), and still things that the house’s only edge is the laws of probability?

Affleck, for his part, seems to be rehashing his part from Boiler Room, with bits of his other charismatic anti-heroes or villains mixed in. And this is only part of why the movie comes off as a bit of a late-’90s throwback; writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien cut their teeth on Rounders — a much better film, incidentally — right as Texas hold ’em really took off as the dominant poker game.

The story plays out in a nice slow burn, but there’s no real surprises here. Ivan feels at times like a con man, but none of his plans are all that detailed or interesting. To be honest, I’m not even so sure that his supposedly corrupt core business model is all that illegal, except for the bribery and other indiscretions around the periphery. It’s very pretty, though, the lifestyle all that money can buy you in a tropical paradise. That much the movie does get right.

Worth It: it’s entertaining enough, but hardly essential.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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