Runner Runner where a disillusioned, world-weary Ben Affleck (everyone's favorite flavor of Ben Affleck, n'est-ce pas?) looks over his empire and sorrowfully dismisses all his accomplishments as illusory: "it's everything you thought you wanted when you where thirteen years old". And in this moment, Runner Runner spoke to me like it had not yet done at any point in its running time. For aye, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the flashy, cartoonishly erotic lifestyle porn set to ceaseless electronic music that passes for content in Runner Runner is exactly what a thirteen-year-old boy, one who strives mightily to have the most uncritical tastes possible, would think of as the absolute peak of power and personal accomplishment. This is why we do not look to thirteen-year-old boys as tastemakers, or let them direct motion pictures.
Runner Runner, from head to toe, is pretty much nothing but useless, shiny crap. It is a sort of exploitation that sells an idea of financial independence as the key to a Pandora's box of hedonistic privilege, but never actually depicts any adult behavior to speak of (a few stray nipples snagged the film an R rating that it appears to have been trying to avoid, strenuously). It stars Justin Timberlake, the perfect vanilla pseudoadult for a story of pseudoadult intrigues and pleasures; it hilariously focuses on the seamy world of offshore internet poker, a topic which writers Brian Koppelman & David Levien (whose last collaboration, bizarrely, was The Girlfriend Experience), whose last poker film was the 15-year-old Matt Damon vehicle Rounders, and like Runner Runner used poker as a hook rather than actually trying to engage with the game in a moderately intelligent way. Unlike Runner Runner, Rounders did this successfully.
The film lands upon Timberlake's Princeton graduate student Richie Furst, whose name sounds like a halfhearted parody that the screenwriters forgot to take out when they decided not to got that direction, and Richie is poor as fuck. Not only is his dad a generate gambling addict in prison, but he lost his great Wall Street job in 2008, and in order to scrape through the costly halls of Ivy League education, he's selling himself as a shill for an internet poker site. When his little business is shut down by the administration, he decides instead to win his tuition using infallible math to win at poker on a different site than the one he was shilling for, only he loses so badly that something must be up. As, indeed, it is; running the website through the Princeton supercomputers reveals warp core fluctuations proving that dilithium hyperspace was used to cheat poor Richie out of all his money. Incensed, the now penniless graduate student hops on the very next plane to Costa Rica, to confront the CEO of the Midnight Black poker site, Ivan Block (Affleck). Impressed by the boy's cojones, Block offers him employment as the Charlie Sheen character from Wall Street. And from here, dazzlement with money, acquisitions and Block's girlfriend, Rebecca Shafran's (Gemma Arterton) cleavage keep Richie from noticing that he's signed a deal with the devil until the FBI in the form of Agent Shavers (Anthony Mackie) starts sniffing around, and Block starts dousing people in chicken fat and throwing them to crocodiles.
Two things suggest themselves:
-Not one moment in Runner Runner is original.
-Not one moment in Runner Runner is intelligent.
There have been plenty of worse-made films this year and every year - director Brad Furman is a hack, but he's a professional, and cinematographer Mauro Fiore is, however undeservedly, an Oscar winner - but very few indeed that are more craven in their limitless stupidity. It's what comes from having a movie mired in such a crass worldview of gaudy consumption, where everything has to be as badass and quippy as possible, which is what leads to stranded actors like Mackie getting to play nominal agents of the United States government, somehow motivated to say things like, "I like fucking with guys from Princeton. I went to Rutgers." In conversation with a man he's trying to seduce over to his side of the law, no less.
Certainly, Timberlake is an almost incalculable liability; in those films where he has demonstrated any facility for acting at all (we'll set aside his short-form comedy work, which is an entirely different muscle), it's in supporting rules where his basic flimsiness as a human being and flutey, amorphous voice are used to good effect (there's no finer moment in his cinematic career than the brief terror when he thinks the rail-thin Andrew Garfield is going to slug him in The Social Network). Playing a smart street kid with the force of will to confront what amounts to an old-school gangsters in a foreign country is entirely outside of his wheelhouse, and there's not ever a point where it stops seeming like little Justin is playing make-believe that he's a savvy conman (which, in the course of the film's roughly-hewn twists, he is obliged to be). Is there a good Runner Runner? No. Is there a better one without Timberlake? Absolutely.
Affleck, for his part, seems quite happy to be taking a nap and quite bored when Furman prods him awake to deliver lines; only Gemma Arterton, certainly the cast member with the most to gain from being impressive at all here, puts any kind of spice into anything she says or does, which only really means that she's able to elevate "generic hot girl with a dark side" into "tartly British hot girl with a dark side". It's not the kind of movie where anybody gets to show off their best work: this is a black hole of charisma or cinematic appeal of any active kind. You think you can make something work by tossing style at it, or at least trivial wish fulfillment, or at least the pervy thrill of watching a get-rich-quick scheme sort of not work and then sort of work again. But the black hole is hungry; it keeps sucking, and sucking, and the sucking just never seems to stop...