Oh, Batfleck. How did you nosedive from Oscar-winning Best Picture director (which is water-cooler distinct from Best Director, for Argo) to agreeing to don a superhero costume (again!) to starring as a corrupt badass in a throwaway film such as Runner Runner in the space of a year? Ben Affleck, you are not a corrupt badass. And it’s proved when your character, an online gaming king, starts shouting and everybody in the theater laughs.
Actually, it’s rather ridiculous when any character in this movie throws a tantrum, so maybe director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer) should take the fall. Affleck’s co-star, Justin Timberlake, is also artificial and stiff as a slick Princeton undergrad and gambling genius, leading you to wonder if it’s best that the otherwise multitalented singer should stick to The Social Network-size roles or crooning about gifting his dick.
Then again, it’s difficult to be natural when every oh-so-clever line is sculpted with a hammer instead of a chisel, thanks to frequent screenwriting collaborators David Levien and Brian Koppelman (Ocean’s Thirteen). And when was the last time you heard someone call a friend “hoss?”
Clearly, the misfires run deep. The very story has problems, unless your heart normally bleeds for “poor” Ivy League students who have a mere $17,000 in the bank. That would be Richie (Timberlake), who earns his tuition steering others to a gaming site until the dean puts an end to his shady side job. Richie then feels he has no choice but to double-or-nothing his savings playing poker. He’s swindled, so he travels to Costa Rica (!) to confront the man he believes is behind the cheat, Ivan Block (Affleck). Instead of getting defensive, Ivan sees Richie’s potential and takes him under his wing, promising unimaginable wealth. Princeton? What’s that?
But Richie was right: Ivan is less than a stand-up guy. And when the high life starts turning into bad news for the kid, he tries to find a way out for both himself and his hapless, bet-aholic dad (John Heard).
Runner’s Big Problem and resolution are a lot of blah, blah, blah, with too much of it explained in Richie’s narration. And at times, watching the movie is as annoying as listening to it, with Furman leaning heavily on a circling camera, having shadowy people walk across the foreground and briefly blocking the characters who are talking, and —-later, randomly—-employing the wavering cam and then the nauseating cam. With each of these predilections occurring in batches, Furman comes across as a film student trying out his new tricks. But it would take a true magician to mold Runner into a winner—-as it’s presented, even an amateur could call its bluff.