Runner Runner: Bland portrayal of online poker

The title of Runner Runner, a drama set in the world of online gambling, refers to a term of art in poker, defined by Wikipedia as a circumstance in which a hand is made by drawing two consecutive cards on the turn and river and … Oh, forget it. Are your eyes glazing over? Mine too. When it comes to this movie and the other direction, run run — don’t walk walk.

A dreary, perfunctory amorality tale that isn’t ashamed to sneak in admiring winks at the world it pretends to scorn, Runner Runner stars Justin Timberlake as Richie, an online poker whiz who is paying his way through Princeton when he encounters a cheater on the website that pays him to recruit new players. No sooner does Richie twig what’s going on than — hey, presto! — he’s on a plane to Costa Rica, where he intends to confront the site’s chief, a Gatsby-esque figure named Ivan Block (Ben Affleck). Impressed by the younger man’s gumption, Ivan convinces Richie to stay and work for him as tummler, foil, enforcer and, finally, useful idiot when the U.S. feds come a-knockin’.

Written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, presumably by cobbling together remnants of their far better 1998 Rounders script, Runner Runner is a talky, inert enterprise, composed mostly of Timberlake spouting statistics, percentages and poker jargon, while Affleck affects the too-cool air of a cyber-era mob boss too genteel to get his hands really dirty. Director Brad Furman – who made the terrific and under-seen 2011 thriller The Lincoln Lawyer –hops from one scene to another with cartoonish alacrity, blithely glossing over details like logic and motivation to put his characters where they need to be in order to get to yet the next pat, too-tidy scene. (Early in the film Richie needs to convince Ivan’s beautiful assistant, played by Gemma Arterton, to get into an exclusive, decadent party — a song and dance we can assume must have been brilliant, considering that he’s walking through said soiree just moments later.)

Affleck’s nasty, natty crime lord is the one vivid character to pop out from an otherwise humdrum exercise: The filmmakers apparently want viewers to take it on faith that Costa Rica is tantamount to the 21st century version of Batista-era Cuba, without conveying a scintilla of genuine atmosphere, danger or tawdry glamour. The one exception might have been that over-the-top party, which here looks like it was filmed in a backyard in Los Angeles’s Hancock Park.

Timberlake has been good in movies (Black Snake Moan, The Social Network and the upcoming Inside Llewyn Davis are just three examples), but here he takes on the by-the-numbers blandness of his formulaic surroundings. The film might take its title from poker subculture, but it lacks all the urgency, single-mindedness and swiftness that the title implies at its most literal. Runner Runner is a bummer.

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