If you have ever read the novel The Princess Bride, you’ll know that William Goldman “edited” the original text from M. Morgenstern down into “the good parts” version, removing all of the fat to get to the meat and potatoes of the action, romance and high adventure that drives the fairy tale. This is a bit how Runner Runner, the new film starring Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck, feels, except that instead of getting a succulent three-course meal, all we really get is the onion rings and ice-cream—it may be some good stuff, but it’s just not as satisfying as the main course.
Timberlake plays Richie, a Princeton Masters student who recruits players to join an online gambling site for which he makes a commission to help pay his tuition. When the school officials finds out, Richie is forced to quit his job or be forced out, because, you know, Princeton has a reputation to protect. To raise the money he needs to finish off his schooling, Richie heads to the online poker site of ultra-rich gaming mogul Ivan Block (Affleck), and subsequently loses all of his money. He quickly finds out that he was cheated, so he high-tails it to Costa Rica to confront Block about his deceptive practices. Block, in turn, sees something special in Richie and offers him a lucrative job, one in which Richie finds out isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Though it’s not the most original idea under the sun, it is a decent enough plot. However, every aspect of the film focuses on those exact plot points, never once digging any deeper into the psychologies of these two men, never attempting to go farther than the acts themselves, and never looking for any real motivation for why these characters do what they do. Every decision that Richie and Ivan make sit high above the surface; yeah, I get why they do them, but I don’t know why they do them. This leads to scene after scene of “moments,” as if the producers are hitting a highlight reel rather than trying to make a gripping thriller. Don’t get me wrong, the thriller aspects of the film are fine (and structured exactly how they should be), but it would have been more gripping had I really cared about these characters. As it is, there are many pieces throughout that seem to have hit the cutting room floor because it just felt too “fatty.” And at a slimming hour and half running time, I could have used just a bit more fat.
Timberlake and Affleck are fine in their respective roles and even have a decent chemistry together. But when I start to zone out in favor of comparing Affleck’s performance to what it might be like as Bruce Wayne, there’s something wrong. His suave, debonair demeanor is stretched so thin, Affleck at times comes off as a man acting like a suave billionaire instead of truly being a suave billionaire. It could be that it’s hard for Affleck to play bad, or it could be exactly the point, but once again, it’s hard to tell because Block’s backstory is glossed over with no real attempt to ground it. Another reason for my wandering mind may have come in the form of Gemma Arterton as Rebecca, Ivan Block’s play-toy who starts to fall for Richie. She may be a gorgeous woman, and I’ve liked her in other films, but here, I didn’t believe any of the chemistry she was supposed to have with anybody on screen. By the end, I wasn’t sure how either of them would care if she was with one or the other, and I didn’t care much for who eventually beat whom in the ultimate scheme of things.
If the movie would have taken more time to develop, and care for, the characters and their personal struggles in these extreme situations, I believe that the action, the intrigue and the chemistry might have been a lot better, giving us a complete and intriguing thriller. But as it is, it knows what it wants to be, tries its best to sell us on good performances, and produces a watchable movie, but when you remove the meat and leave us with just an appetizer and desert, one’s dissatisfaction is inevitable.
My Grade: B
Next week, new movies include Captain Phillips and Machete Kills. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.