Review: 'Runner Runner'

There's something to be said for a 90-minute movie featuring Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck, and that something is "mildly entertaining". Tackling a subject rarely seen on the big screen, online gambling, and relying solely on an audience's goodwill for the aforementioned fellows, "Runner Runner" doesn't ever really attempt a plot. But give this mindless enterprise a little credit, because it knows what it does have to offer: scantily clad women, corrupt officials, boats and beaches. Oh, and JT plus the next Batman. If that's not enough for you, if that doesn't sound at all attractive, well then you're going to be pretty disappointed. Because that's it, the whole enchilada, nothing more to see here.

Justin Timberlake, as Richie Furst (which, but they way, is a ridiculous name. Furst?!) is a Princeton student, going for his master's degree in finance. We've all been there. Naturally, he's a brilliant kid, and he's earning a little money on the side by referring college kids (and professors) to gambling websites. For each one he gets hooked on online poker, he gets a commission, a fairly common affiliate method amongst those always on the lookout for fresh young fools. However, when Princeton's Dean gets wind of Richie's exploits, he's none too happy, and he tells Furst that this will be his last warning. With no way to pay for school, Richie decides to gamble for his college tuition, only something goes terribly wrong. This calamity (which remarkably occurred in real life) leads Richie to Costa Rica, to meet the big boss of the online poker world, Ivan Block (Ben Affleck). From then our young hero will become deeply entangled in the other side of the game he was playing from thousands of miles away, given a front row seat to the massive amounts of commerce and shady dealings that come along with offshore illegalities.

It's right about here that the story gets supremely fun, and also massively disjointed and illogical. "Runner Runner", from the writers who brought you "Rounders", lacks the intimacy that you'd hope for in a tale that purports to be about Furst's journey into the dark underbelly of gambling. Furst makes friends in Costa Rica, sure, but they are of the vague and underdeveloped sort. He has a love interest, yes, but it's not entirely clear, at any given time, whether or not either party is actually interested. It would seem as though "Runner Runner" wants to live in a world where triple and quintuple crosses exist, only it never sets any of them up, and so the "twists" end up feeling more like "moments that happen" instead. So that's odd. Perhaps in a world where "Runner Runner" had two hours to toy with (plus one or two less tonal pivots) it could have been a legitimately great film. Instead we're left with the trappings of one, with mere opulence substituted for substance.

Enter Gemma Arterton as Rebecca, Ivan Block's business partner and former fling, she finds herself smitten with young Richie. In the grand tradition of most gambling films she's reduced to little more than a woman with a nice figure and some sizzling one-liners (conversely, the aforementioned "Rounders" featured an interesting female character, Famke Janssen's portrayal of Petra, but there's nothing approaching anything that nuanced here). Also add into the mix Anthony Mackie as FBI Agent Eric Shavers, he's trying to put the squeeze on Richie to turn against his mentor, Ivan. All of these disparate motivations are thrown into what can only be called a "plot stew", with director Brad Furman ("The Lincoln Lawyer") hoping and praying everything will end up okay if he just keeps stirring. Some of this freneticism pays off, with speed and momentum, the shiny objects of cinema, generally keeping any given audience member from getting too bored.

Still, by the end of this very short engagement there's more than a little forced tension on display. Timberlake does his best to play a man without a country, wary of any and all, but no one would truly be able to execute the schizophrenic nature of this character who oftentimes seems to be acting in scenes that aren't actually of this film, playing against people who are shadows, with the backdrop of something picturesque right behind all of them, blurry and out of focus. It's not so much that "Runner Runner" is bad as it is unconsidered, visceral but inscrutable. By the "grand finale" it's hard to gin up much enthusiasm, mostly because there's simply no way to tell what's going on. "Listen up," you can almost hear "Runner Runner" saying, but there's too much empty seashell noise accompanying the command, drowning out the order.

SCORE: 5.8 / 10

Laremy wrote the book on film criticism and isn't very good at gambling.