There’s good news out there, beyond the fact that Ben Affleck gives a terrific performance in this movie: There’s a book on the market titled “Casino Gambling for Dummies.” No joke. I found one on the Barnes & Noble website for $4.38 (plus shipping). If you’re not a regular gambler, and want to get something more out of “Runner Runner” than that Affleck performance, you’d best pick up a copy before seeing it.
Otherwise, how would you know what brilliant former Wall Street investor-turned Princeton graduate student (and campus online bookie) Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) means when, while playing online poker he says, “He was folding while I was trapping.”
Wait, here’s a better one, and it even works in the film’s title. Online gambling entrepreneur Ivan Block (Affleck), who lives in and runs his business from Costa Rica because 1, he’s on the FBI watch list due to possible financial crime, and 2, for whatever nefarious reasons, he can’t set foot on American soil, tells Richie, “Hitting a runner runner flush in Texas hold ’em is very rare.”
I didn’t understand any of that, and I didn’t care about folding and trapping. But I was curious about the title and the quote. I found a comprehensive poker website and got an explanation of a runner runner: “If a player holds two suited cards, and the flop comes with two of their suit, they have flopped a flush draw. Since they have four to a flush on the flop, they need only to hit a fifth card of their suit on either the turn or the river, in order to complete their hand.”
Ummm ... what?
OK, in plain speak, Richie gambles away all of his money playing online poker, realizes he’s probably been cheated by the site, which is owned by Ivan, makes a beeline to Costa Rica where – wouldn’t you know it? – a gambling convention is going on (pretty much just to give the film a little visual pizzazz, even though it only looks like a bunch of well dressed extras drinking and gambling). The plan is to get an audience with impossible-to-meet Ivan, explain that he was cheated, then ask for his money back. Things didn’t go too well when foolish gambler Albert Brooks begged casino manager Garry Marshall for his nest egg back in “Lost in America” (though that scene was uncomfortably hilarious), but in this case, smooth-talker Richie not only meets the man, he also gets an explanation, an apology, his money back, and a job offer.
The job turns out to be something on the order of “I tell you to do something, and you do it.”
This story could have gone to some interesting places. There’s stuff about Costa Rican officials wanting more money out of Ivan in order to let him continue to operate there, a mention of loyalty among thieves, examples of blackmail and backstabbing and payoffs. There’s even reason to bring hungry crocodiles into the picture.
But nothing gels. Too many of the ingredients end up getting in the way of each other before they’re given room to develop. When a clichéd story about Richie’s deadbeat gambling dad (John Heard) is stuck on, the whole thing collapses under the weight of it all.
And even though Affleck has his Ivan convincingly exuding confidence, charm, and a sense of danger, Timberlake, who has certainly proved his worth before as an actor (“The Social Network,” “Alpha Dog”), just can’t make this role work, and is both unconvincing and unbelievable as a character who is simply too sure of himself. The bottom line here is that the main story and most of the characters in it just aren’t very interesting.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
Written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien; directed by Brad Furman
With Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton, Anthony Mackie, John Heard