Release Date: September 27th, 2013 (UK); October 4th, 2013 (US)
Genre: Crime; Drama; Thriller
Starring: Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton
At some point near the beginning of Runner Runner, Justin Timberlake’s snappy student Richie Furst says, “Make no mistake, if you’re betting something, you’re gambling”. In this solitary sentence the character sums up the film within which he aimlessly meanders. It’s such a throwaway line, one that is so obvious it becomes irrelevant. Much like the whole of Brad Furman’s utterly conventional outing. But more than that, the words resonate with truth. Runner Runner isn’t betting on anything other than the knowledge that its audience is well-versed in poker lingo. There is no gambling going on here, only playing it safe. And safety is really boring.
Having blown his big break in Wall Street, Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) is now ploughing his way through college. Unable to afford the master’s jump, Richie gambles all of his savings in a game of online poker and comes up short. Though, it turns out he’s been conned by Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), a rich business tycoon whom Richie endeavours to tell off in Costa Rica.
For a film centred on gambling — a concept pillared by unpredictability — Runner Runner is endlessly predictable. It relies on cheap normalities more often than not, and subsequently fails to sizzle in any way. Proceedings kick-off with yet another montage comprised of news reports, an introductory method that is becoming increasingly common in contemporary cinema. It’s too easy. Writing partners Brian Koppelman and David Levien contribute a screenplay bereft of originality and stained by familiarity; we watch the typical story of a guy with a gift (this time it’s intellect) who decides to throw everything away by dabbling in unethical stuff. Where does this bustling need to be edgy come from? A troubled parent of course (this time it’s the father), a dad who lived beyond his means and not with his son’s best interests at heart.
We struggle to engage with the film then, primarily due to the trampled road down which it blindly ventures, and behind many better pieces that have gone before. Timberlake himself has starred in a more focused slick-fest, The Social Network, a flick that Runner Runner seemingly aspires to be. That film had Aaron Sorkin’s witty script and David Fincher’s scintillating direction, whereas this would claw at the chance to boast half of the aforementioned duo’s inventiveness. Unless we’re quoting lines to demonstrate an incessantly plodding nature, the dialogue is severely unmemorable. It is a shame too, for a more enterprising approach might have made this a sleek addition to The Social Network or even Ocean’s Eleven brand. Yet, it’s not even on 21’s table.
And it is not as if the filmmakers aren’t trying to add a stand-out quality, they just frequently miss the mark. Richie wanders into a nightclub fairly early on where there is an obvious attempt to infuse events with style. Camera glued to the travelling student, an array of luminous colours give way to a myriad of energetic tunes. What should be glossy instead feels forced and unnatural. The moment is too music video-esque. In fact the whole presentation is laced with this sense of unimportance — chopping a few scenes wouldn’t make any difference. Nor would the addition of Kanye West miming lyrics to his new song.
When we’re not being bogged down by uneventful narrative, we’re still challenged to fend off relentless onslaughts of casino lingo. The entire opening poker scene is a verbal tennis match, Timberlake constantly serving to our body with language that is either too difficult to grasp or too boring to care about. Furman and company revel in the speech. As do their characters, who collectively spend large periods of time explaining the plot and, in doing so, don’t really condone gambling. Just the illegal side of it. Betting is an inherently negatively regarded activity, which presents a problem in so much as there is a resultant air of deceit that surrounds all of the characters from the start.
Ben Affleck is the one who phones it in most often. And who can blame him? Post-Argo, and probably still basking in that rich, dense frame of mind during filming, it is no wonder that he gives off the impression of someone memorising and then robotically regurgitating lines. He plays Ivan Block. Block calls his boat ‘The House’ because “the house always wins”. He’s a millionaire. Even the imperiously charismatic Justin Timberlake’s attempts to overcome the dreary script are unfounded. His character is a bit rubbish too — Richie is so desperate to gain a master’s degree that he gambles away all of his tuition money and then leaves college forever. When the filmmakers remember she is on the payroll, Gemma Arterton appears. Like the others she’s much better than the stinker of a role afforded to her, but Arterton does make an effort and is quite amiable.
Runner Runner is an intuition vacuum. By the time any shallow complexities begin we’ve been too dazed by convention and a superfluous insistence on casino-tongue to figure anything out. It’s not necessarily a badly made film, or even a bad film at all. It’s just really dull.
Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox