'Runner, Runner' Coasts on Narrative Autopilot

Runner Runner falls flat, and keeps getting up when it really should just stay down.

Runner Runner

Director: Brad Furman
Cast: Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton, John Heard, Anthony Mackie
Rated: R
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-10-04 (General release)

Apparently, smart kids do dumb things ALL THE TIME. Either that, or Hollywood scriptwriters are convinced that the hallowed halls of Harvard, Princeton, and Yale are full of cloyingly clueless geniuses that can't delineate between common sense and Sanskrit. Richie Furst (Justine Timberlake) is such a dope. He drops a huge bunch of money on an online porker site (he needs to make bank for tuition, don't you know) and when he loses, he figures he can just approach the enterprise's owner and ask for it back. Turns out, our slick operator is named Ivan Block (Ben Affleck, sans cowl) and he is stationed in sunny Costa Rica, the better to avoid the United State's pesky rules and regulations - and police....and court...and jails.

Once south of the border, the supposedly knowledgeable Richie fails to see that he's being set up. Instead of giving him a refund, Ivan offers him a well paying job - without seeing his resume. One look at his potential boss's rapper like lifestyle and our rube is in. As first, he's seduced by the wine, women, and wealth, including the fetching Rebecca Shafran (Gemma Arterton). Then things get a bit more troubling. But when the FBI, in the body of Agent Shavers (Anthony Mackie), gets a hold of our numb-skulled neophyte, it's time to cut a deal. Richie will rat out Ivan in return for his freedom. Our villain has an ace up his sleeve, however, in the form of a degenerate gambler named Harry Furst...that's right, Richie's dad.

Bet you can guess how this all plays out? If not, you need to apply to MIT right now.

If you were sitting around on a lazy Saturday afternoon, nothing good on the various sports channels and a decided lack of anything better to do with your seemingly abundant free time, you might think that Runner Runner would be a decent recliner diversion. It's got exotic locales, likeable stars, and the kind of story that your average pay channel regurgitates with direct to DVD diligence. Well, don't be fooled by all the money and power. Runner Runner is pathetic. It's like watching a bunch of well paid people go through the motions for a story we've seen a hundred times before for an ending telegraphed the moment we meet our unlikely lead arrives to slowly destroy our faith in film.

Justin Timberlake tries to bring some sympathy to the math whiz gypped out of his college cash, but he's suck a dupe, such a miserable MENSA bumpkin that you actually root for Affleck's Ivan to fleece him out of everything he's got, including IQ pointgs. Babes in the wood don't have to be diapered as often as this example of Generation Y-Bother entitlement. Ivy League schools should demand a disclaimer at the bottom of each scene he's in, reminding viewers that not every young adult who matriculates at their fine universities is such a complete and utter tool. Affleck is no better, character-wise, but at least screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien (who explored similar territory in the Matt Damon card sharp drama Rounders) give him some juicy lines to recite. Granted, you've already heard most of them in the trailer, but for his part, the Man Who Would Be the Knight of Darkness does his darnedest with this otherwise below average material.

As for the rest - well, John Heard is pleasantly pathetic, Mr. Mackie seems completely out of his league, and Ms. Arterton is decent eye candy. None are given anything more to do than watch Affleck circle Timberlake and demand the kid bring sexy...or at the very least, the monies he's owed...back. Had there been a real sense of danger, had most of the violence not been kept off screen but given some Scarface-lite bite, we might feel invested in the outcome. But as he proved with the rather lax The Lincoln Lawyer, director Brad Furman is good at tweaking colors in post, and not much else. There is no snap here, no electricity or drive. We are merely in the compliant company of some actors who should have known better biding their time while the paycheck (hopefully) clears.

But it's the storyline that stifles everything, a seen it all before collection of power play cliches that doesn't even get the details right. Perhaps if we had learned a bit more about how people like Ivan Block operate, how they manage to manipulate the rules to basically rob people blind all in the name of technology and progress and poker, we'd accept the below average story arcs. Maybe if Richie was trying to trick his target by using that supposed brain of his (sadly, the character probably wouldn't know how to spell 'outsmart,' let alone achieve same), that might work as well. There is no complexity here, no attempt at turning the standard "mole in the maelstrom" material into a legitimate nailbiter. Instead, Runner Runner falls flat, and keeps getting up when it really should just stay down.

Furman's failure is top to bottom, from bad casting choices (Timberlake is good as support, but in the lead he's lost) to the lack of any real R-rated firepower. Glengarry Glen Ross had more sex and violence than this film, and used its F-bombs better. Maybe you'll enjoy the travelogue like views of Costa Rica and Puerto Rico, but one imagines a more compelling presentation as part of some cut-rate Lonely Planet presentation. Perhaps had the film really gone for so-bad-it's-good broke we could snicker over the potential camp value of what's on the screen. Instead, Runner Runner is the worst kind of mediocrity. It's purportedly intelligent characters are really nothing but mooks and morons, and the film treats its audience the very same way.

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