As soon as offshore gambling mogul Ivan (Ben Affleck) shows off his pet crocodiles to a wide-eyed Richie (Justin Timberlake), it’s clear that somebody is going to be thrown to said reptiles. The only question in Runner Runner is who.
Princeton University graduate student Richie is a one-time hedge fund guy who got cleaned out by the Great Recession and is now trying to get his Master’s in mathematics. It’s safe to say that the school doesn’t appreciate that he pays his tuition by acting as a tout for online gaming sites who pay him a commission on the students he solicits. And so, after a laugh-worthy betting-it-all montage — the camera circles around Richie while he gambles his life savings on a poker site and fellow students cheer him on — he thinks he has one option left, to go to Costa Rica and find Ivan, the guy who runs the site, and get his money back.
Once Richie arrives on the island, the film switches from one set of clichés (Ivy League fall colors and eggheads arguing about probability models) to another (easily bribed cops and a curious lack of air conditioning). Although Brian Koppelman and David Levien’s script provides little reason to think Richie is a smooth operator, in no time he’s talked Ivan out of his money and received a new job offer. At this point, the film changes clichés again, from a scrappy underdog story to a living-the-dream epic of excess. The millions that Ivan’s site pulls in every day apparently pay for a lot of pool parties, bikini babes, hired guns, and tastefully minimalist dwellings.
It’s difficult to see why Richie falls for any of this. Everything about Ivan’s gleaming smile and frat-brotherish swagger should appear a giant “Stop” sign to a someone like Richie, a computer-lab quant without visible insecurities. In the world of Runner Runner, the money itself is the lure. But even if reality, of course, that’s often enough reason for people to cast aside any moral quandaries, in convincing fiction, more is required. The script seems modeled on too many luridly escapist books like Ben Mezrich’s Bringing Down the House and The Accidental Billionaires, and the film resembles 21 and The Social Network, beautiful sagas of smart guys getting into trouble — and increasingly wide and mobile frames — once they leave the dorm room.
Timberlake works hard to make Richie’s quick and unreflective drop into a shady business believable. He brings a bushy-tailed energy that perfectly fits the eager young striver who believes he’s been cheated and risks all to get ahead. He even has a beaten-down old gambler of a dad (John Heard) on hand to function as a warning of what he could become if he doesn’t reel in his dangerous ways. As in most stories of this sort, every 10 minutes or so, someone makes sure to point out to Richie that he should just get out, fold his cards, go back to America. Of course, he doesn’t, and as he flies closer to the sun, his wings are looking mighty fragile.
That Richie falls for such an obviously flawed villain’s appeal is another problem. Ivan almost looks annoyed at having to spell out his threats. Unfortunately, the film also takes on Affleck’s less-is-more attitude. By the time all the plot strands are getting tied up and snipped off in the too-neat-by-half conclusion, it’s hard to know exactly what just happened. These strands are as corny as they are illogical: a romantic subplot between Richie and Rebecca (Gemma Arterton), Ivan’s longtime lover and confidant who needs only a couple grins from Richie to tumble into his arms, is as dispensable as can be. I’m not sure what it means that Shavers (Anthony Mackie), the FBI agent chasing Ivan, is granted the gift of Runner Runner‘s only funny laugh line. Explaining why he will really enjoy putting the squeeze on a panicked Richie, Shavers announces, “I went to Rutgers.”