Review: Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck battle it out in mild-mannered ‘Runner Runner’

I liked Brad Furman’s last film as a director, “The Lincoln Lawyer.” It wasn’t a genre defining masterwork, but it displayed real control and confidence, and it struck me as the work of soon who had a real knack for connecting with his cast.

Likewise, I am fond of “Rounders,” a film co-written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien that has grown in esteem since it was first release in 1998. The film predated the pop culture obsession with poker, and it had a great ensemble cast that included Matt Damon, Edward Norton, John Malkovich, John Turturro, and Martin Landau.

When I first read that “Runner Runner” takes place in the world of online gambling, I thought it sounded like a perfect venue for Koppleman and Levien to explore, and I walked into the screening fingers crossed. So far, Justin Timberlake has not really won me over on film. I think he exhibited a bit of promise in his early roles like “Alpha Dog” or “Black Snake Moan,” but I’m not sure he’s actually ever lived up to that promise. He’s fine in “The Social Network,” but he’s far from the best thing about the movie. I thought he was just flat-out strange in “Bad Teacher,” but I’m not sure how much of that is what was written and how much of it was what he brought to the role. As a lead, I thought he was flat in both the horrible “In Time” and the deeply mediocre “Trouble With The Curve,” and when you’ve got filmmakers like David Fincher and Clint Eastwood directing someone and still not getting any real signs of life out of him, maybe the problem isn’t the directors.

My feelings remain ambivalent about Timberlake after “Runner Runner.” He plays Richie Furst, a guy trying to pay his way through college by doing some online gambling, and when he loses everything during a particularly brutal run, he is convinced someone cheated him. He flies to Costa Rica to confront the owner of the website, a somewhat shadowy figure named Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), only to find himself pulled into Block’s orbit.

“Runner Runner” is ultimately a tale of two scumbags, one in training, one in retreat. Block knows that he’s been targeted by the US government, and he’s always playing every angle he possibly can. When Richie tells him about his suspicions, Ivan is horrified, and he not only gives Richie his money back, but he offers him a job working for the website. Block rolls out the red carpet, showing Richie the world he could end up living in, and part of the trap that he lays out includes Rebecca Shafran (Gemma Arterton). If Richie were a character who was struggling to figure out his own moral compass, maybe “Runner Runner” would be a stronger piece. The problem is that Richie seems perfectly happy to do anything and everything Ivan asks of him, even after he sees some genuinely shady behavior. It’s not much of a struggle, and Richie doesn’t seem troubled by Ivan’s basic moral failures at all.

The FBI is in Costa Rica, as well, sniffing around and trying to find a way to get to Ivan, and Agent Shavers (Anthony Mackie) leans on Richie and some of the other employees. Again… this is a world where everyone’s rotten. Shavers seems willing to break whatever laws are required in his efforts to nail Ivan, and overall, the movie is at its weakest when it wants us to suddenly start rooting for Richie to “do the right thing,” since it’s not motivated by anything beyond simple self-preservation. I like movies in which lots of shady people bounce off of each other, and I don’t need anyone to be the “good guy,” but this film seems to want it both ways. It wants to depict the seductive nature of the world that Ivan as built around himself, but it also wants to paint Richie as the hero of the film. It doesn’t commit to either approach enough to really work.

I think Affleck’s work here is also problematic. I love it when Ben Affleck plays total douchebags. He was outstanding in “Dazed & Confused,” which was also my introduction to him as a performer, and he is gleefully gross in “Mallrats.” A performance like “Boiler Room” or “Changing Lanes” is far more interesting than the bland heroics of “The Sum of All Fears” or “Pearl Harbor.” I’m puzzled, then, why Ivan Block simply doesn’t work for me. I think it comes down to not buying the character. He basically does everything but twirl a moustache here, but it’s so half-hearted that I don’t buy him as being a real force of malice. He’s not committed fully, and so it’s hard to get too caught up in what happens to him one way or another.

By now, I view the casting of Gemma Arterton as problematic in any film, and this is no exception. It’s a thankless role, thinly written, but she doesn’t add anything to it at all. Arterton is a lovely blank in role after role, and even once she becomes an essential part of the film’s mechanics, she is a big bowl of bland. Sure, you can throw Mauro Fiore’s lush cinematography at the equation, and in terms of craft, the film is perfectly lovely. There’s nothing overtly “wrong” with it, but it doesn’t matter if the film never really comes to life. That’s the most frustrating sort of miss, I would think, that kind of competent failure, because until you cut it together, you may not realize that the connective tissue that makes something a real film simply isn’t there.

“Runner Runner” shouldn’t end up on anyone’s list of worst films of the year, but it’s forgettable in a way that is maybe more upsetting if you’re the filmmaker. It’s one thing to have people stirred up and passionate about your film, even if they hate it, but all I want to do after “Runner Runner” is shrug. It’ll be gone completely from my memory by Monday, and that seems like a shame considering all the talent assembled to try to make it work.

“Runner Runner” opens tomorrow.