Friday, October 4, 2013

'Runner Runner' bets on online gambling, folds early

Posted By on Fri, Oct 4, 2013 at 9:00 AM

Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck star in Runner Runner
  • Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck star in Runner Runner

Ordinarily it'd take some kind of act of god or terrorism to get me to voluntarily go sit through a movie starring Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake. Runner Runner, though, is a film ostensibly set within the world of online poker, a subject long dear to my gambling heart, and so I can't say I wasn't immediately sucked into the possibility this could be one of those "yeah that actor's a total a bro but this movie kind of is well done for what it is" creations, somewhere in the realm of The Social Network or Catch Me If You Can. Though unfortunately Runner Runner never quite makes it on par with even that sort of pop crime quasi-thriller, there was at least enough here for me to have made it through the movie without wanting to leave.

I've always found it strange there aren't more great movies about gambling, and in particular poker. Granted, watching people play cards isn't necessarily always fodder for intrigue, but there's something inherent in the depiction of high stakes competition that seems conceptually well-suited to a more mental kind of drama. I always find myself kind of sitting up in my chair a little more when a film or show invokes characters involved in games of skill, if for no reason other than I'm hoping they'll do it in a way that actually reflects an understanding of the thrill of gambling itself: the weird gut-thrust of taking a huge loss, the seedy surroundings frequently carried hand in hand with all things casino, the long array of bizarre degenerates who spend their hours grinding a living out via cards. 1998's Rounders seems to have become cemented as the most effective movie of this kind, to the point of pretty much being totally responsible for the early 2000s poker boom, including the mammoth rise of online poker, in which Runner Runner sets its show.

Within its first few minutes, there's no question Runner Runner takes a page from Rounders, even if rather quickly it shifts its feel to different modes. The film's protagonist, embodied by our boy J.T., is a Princeton student paying his tuition by earning kickback corralling students to become players at an online gaming site. Direct voiceovers, in the style of Matt Damon's from Rounders, provide the audience with an insider's edge on a certain brand of philosophical logic behind gambling; though, of course, this inside logic is aimed to be understood by those who haven't the slightest idea what gambling terms like rakeback and even runner runner really mean. The result is an easy-to-mock but not entirely ridiculous portrayal of how people who gamble talk and act, somewhere between glamorous douche and unnecessary math wizard, which is not an indecent range of profile for the would-be poker grinder.

Affleck embodies this image to the fullest, even before he hits the screen. If ever there were a role made for a guy who's ended up nearly a Keanu 2 after coming out of the gates winning an Oscar for screenwriting, the role of a dirtbag online gaming mogul raking in billions through online casinos in Costa Rica is it. We first encounter Benny boy in a sweat lodge wearing a white robe, wooing two lardy business associates with abstract wax about the bloody nature of competition before sending them on their way to receive free BJs at his casino's spa. Where Affleck's flat, unpolished affect in other roles can seem like the performance of someone lucky to be getting acting work at all, it oddly works as a creepy internet casino boss; it's like he cares but doesn't care; like he's buried in himself somehow, but intent on getting everything he's supposed to want. In a film where no performance really stands out, he's memorable at least for how well he fills a character you're never supposed to get a finger on, or like.

But the draw of Runner Runner being a film concerned with depicting the world of online poker quickly passes. Instead, J.T. quickly finds himself wrapped up in the seedy underbelly of online gambling, invited by Affleck to take part in his billion dollar corporation as an advisor. Once we're in Costa Rica, the movie pretty much abandons any attention it had paid to the mechanics of gambling; this is a more a film about how gambling inevitably leads to hell. Of course, Affleck's whole enterprise is corrupt; anyone who plays on the site is destined to give him all their money, win or lose. The whole scenario is a frilled up echo of the Full Tilt Poker scandal in 2011, which pretty much caused the prohibition of online gaming in the States when it was discovered that the site's owners weren't keeping money on hand to be able to pay off their accounts.

Poker in America, for some reason, has always been presented with this cagey no-no edge. We can buy scratch offs and invest in stocks and drive Smart cars at rush hour, but somehow poker, a game undeniably more vested in skill than most other forms of inert competition, is a plague. As a result, Americans either migrate to Las Vegas for vacation, or they put their money in the hands of those beyond U.S. jurisdiction, gambling even with the possibility that they might not ever see that money again. Tax dollars disappear, and college kids keep graduating whether they open a Bookmaker account or not, all behind the elephant-colored moral veil that somehow we need America to protect us from ourselves.

Meanwhile, the new Affleck movie is safe as milk. It's got guns and big cleavage and house music. It's got corrupt government officials being fed to alligators and the face of a pop star fighting for his name. And while Runner Runner does its best to make gambling seem like just another one of hundreds of traditionally morally bent ways of entertainment, in the end it is just another action movie used as a device to pass the time. It's almost even good at that, though I can't say I didn't pull out my phone and check Twitter and Gmail and send a text message a few times throughout. If I could play poker for money on my phone, I probably would have, but instead I gambled with what parts of the story I could miss and still know where I was exactly, which was at an OK flick I won't remember from last late summer's version in a month. But like anything devised as entertainment, there's nothing wrong with that, any more so than there's anything wrong with the lard in cheese on the nachos or the butter on the exploded corn you bought to give your mouth and face something to do with while you sit on your ass in the dark surrounded by strangers all together staring with you at a bright screen.

Online poker isn't scary, nor is it sexy. I've spent countless hours on end folding and raising, looking for sports bets that might pay off, all time I could have been doing something better with myself during, but also time I could have been rubbing shit on my face. Internet gambling is not going to turn anybody into a crackhead or cause them to lose their jobs, at least not any more than anything else in the world possibly could. Any practice or substance is subject to addiction, to misuse, but I don't see mandates coming down to outlaw Nickelback or Robin Thicke. By forcing people who want to gamble from home to scurry off to providers housed in unpoliced regions is far more dangerous, and the opposite of freedom. I'm not sure that it means to, but in the end Runner Runner feels more like a 90 minute ad supporting our government's decision to rather arbitrarily demonize what seems as common a vice as any other. There's nothing that isn't a gamble of some for or another, including buying a ticket to a movie or looking too long into a light. Apparently, we need some more prudent fascists put in charge. Or maybe just some logical people.

Here's the version of Runner Runner I would have liked to see, or at least one somewhat closer to the world of online poker: J.T. gains 80 pounds for his performance as a guy who works in a cubicle by day and plays online poker at night, drinking Mountain Dew while eight-tabling $.50/$1 no limit for a modest monthly profit, each night masturbating himself to sleep. Affleck, having also put on eighty pounds, plays J.T.'s alcoholic neighbor with Tourette's, who stays up beyond late most nights snorting coke and watching SportsCenter. Over time, bonding in loneliness, the two men become best friends, and eventually, roommates. They grow old together sharing the same wi-fi signal. The end.

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