A Pawn in a Gambler’s Game
Runner Runner, the latest from director Brad Furman, is apparently based on true events, but it bares little truth. Justin Timberlake plays Richie, a Princeton whiz earning his masters in finance who also has a gambling problem. Ben Affleck plays Ivan Block, an online betting mogul who hangs out in boats and scams his clients. Both of them end up playing each other.
Most of the film takes place in Costa Rica, but the majority of scenes are actually shot in Puerto Rico. So, what this film is really doing is just bluffing its way through ninety minutes and hoping you don’t fold. Of course, that might just be the unfortunate metaphor Furman, along with writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien, decided to play in this glossy, outdated tale of the corrupt gambling business.
Richie, an aspirational hedge funder, struggles to pay his tuition at the New Jersey Ivy League and so resorts to getting side profit by routing students to a gambling website. This causes him grief with the Dean and so in desperation he decides to bet all of his bank account one night in a game of online poker. He loses but quickly finds evidence of cheating from some analytics he’s coordinated and decides to fly down to Costa Rica to confront Block, the site’s wealthy, pretentious owner.
Inspired by Richie’s aggressive power play, Block offers him an indiscriminate job as a part employee, part lapdog, but with a full seven figure paycheck. This means instant access to Block’s world of luxe life parties, open bars, craps tables, and ocean vistas. It also necessarily introduces an unremitting tug of war over a woman, this time played, mostly thanklessly, by Gemma Arterton, the only person who has substantial lines without a Y chromosome. She- likely Block’s girlfriend- and Richie flirt and soon enough get vertically physical.
It’s about the most passion Timberlake gives in his performance, or seen in anyone’s performance for that matter (this is a disappointing step back for Affleck). He delivers a smooth, slyly confident persona resembling his interpretation of Napster founder Sean Parker in The Social Network. Timberlake, the epitome of a well-liked multifaceted media icon, has double duty trying to create an ounce of empathy when harm eventually comes his way. Richie has a father (John Heard) with a gambling problem and soon enough is exposed to the darker world of Block’s regime, taking beatings and slander from clients unhappy with their payoffs. Soon enough, Richie gets pulled in by law enforcement, led by a stylish Anthony Mackie, to work as an informant and receives some more abuse.
Richie loves gambling because, as he says, “everyone has a fair shot.” Of course, examining Block’s underground practices in further detail skews that logic considerably. At certain points, this is a movie that tries to tackle universal issues and questions regarding billion dollar corporations and the sweatshops that anonymously finance them. The conversation starts but never continues. This would rather be an insular star-driven product, infatuated by the shady lifestyles that are built by cheap labor: men flanked by prostitutes and wads of bills stashed in pillowcases and cigar boxes.
Upon arriving in Costa Rica, Richie walks into one of Block’s parties, a trippy whirlwind of circus acts, saturated color, and Deadmau5 techno. It’s bizarre, and the camera swirls around the stunned Princeton grad student in equal wonderment. It’s an overlong sequence that doesn’t work and feels solely there to promote the big-eared electronic DJ. In more ways than one, it’s worthy of this movie.
Photos courtesy 20th Century Fox
- ‘Runner Runner’ Review: Ben Affleck Wins the Charm Race in This Tedious Thriller (thewrap.com)
- Film Review: Runner Runner (2013) (filmblerg.com)