"Rounders" wins a few hands but doesn't walk off with the whole pot. Intermittently engaging but dramatically slack, this tale of a law student's discovery of his true calling as a world-class poker player is more interesting around the edges than it is at its core.

“Rounders” wins a few hands but doesn’t walk off with the whole pot. Intermittently engaging but dramatically slack, this tale of a law student’s discovery of his true calling as a world-class poker player is more interesting around the edges than it is at its core, thanks to the dull nature of the lead character played by Matt Damon. After festival launches in Montreal and Venice, Miramax should expect some reasonable short-term winnings here rather than a big haul.

John Dahl’s film gives itself an immediate advantage by ushering the viewer into the illicit world of high-stakes card games in private New York clubs. This sets up a tantalizing confidential tone, which is enhanced by the prospect of learning something about how the best players finesse their opponents, and by the inevitable climactic, “Hustler”-like duel between the sympathetic young hotshot and a formidable old pro. Would that the payoff came close to matching the promise.

Knitted together by some often effective first-person narration, David Levien and Brian Koppelman’s insider script kicks off with confident college boy Mike McDermott (Damon) losing his life savings by pushing his luck in a game against a crafty Russian hood and club owner, Teddy KGB (John Malkovich).

Nine months later, Mike is dutifully hitting his law books, having renounced his cardsharping with the support of his fellow student and live-in g.f., Jo (Gretchen Mol). But Jo’s antennae are raised by the release from prison of Worm (Edward Norton), Mike’s wise-ass old friend and partner whom she suspects will quickly lead her mate astray once again.

Jo’s worst fears are realized when Worm immediately steers Mike in the direction of the nearest easy-mark card game. Even though it’s not apparent in Damon’s characterization, being reminded of the thrill of winning at the tables makes Mike feel alive for the first time in ages, and his admission of this is sufficiently insulting to Jo that she walks out, leaving Mike to resume his former reckless existence with Worm.

Unfortunately, the better part of this first hour is dominated by the dynamic of one character browbeating another, be it Jo lecturing Mike on how he’d better not return to the gambling life, or Mike in turn giving Worm a hard time over his irresponsible behavior and accumulation of debts. In a film that at least in part is trying to generate a little excitement about its milieu and the compulsive drive of gamblers, all this complaining and finger-waving takes most of the fun out of it.

The dramatic ante is upped midway through when a debt-collecting thug named Grama (a menacing Michael Rispoli) puts the squeeze on Worm, who still owes money from before he went into the hole. For the lame reason that “I’m all he has,” Mike makes the big mistake of personally vouching for the uncontrollable Worm’s debt, and when Grama tells them to fork over $15,000 in five days or else, the pair go on a sleepless binge of games that includes a misguided attempt to hustle a bunch of cops and concludes with the showdown with Teddy KGB.

The milieu remains passably interesting throughout, and the sterling supporting cast does a lot to bring matters to life, notably Malkovich, who has a grand old time hamming it up as the thickly accented Russian card master; John Turturro as a normal guy who just happens to support his family by gambling; and Norton, in what could be called the Sean Penn role as the impulsive bad boy who can’t help himself.

Unfortunately, the writers didn’t give their leading character any emotional dimension or compelling characteristics. Despite his many voiced opinions about card playing and his determination to be the best at it, Mike tends to just let things happen to him, whether it’s his girlfriend leaving him or Worm luring him back to the table or into a web of debt. Mike’s impassivity allows the viewer to cool on him rather quickly, and Damon does little to make him seem like anything more than a decent kid with a single-track mind.

Worm is the script’s greatest live wire, especially as the quicksilver Norton plays him, but here, too, the writers have come up short; a brilliant player, Worm nonetheless messes up every opportunity he has either through carelessness or shooting his mouth off. If Worm were at least erratic, rather than a total screw-up, he wouldn’t become as tiresome as he does, and Mike’s indulgence of him would be comprehensible.

Dahl applies a smooth directorial hand to the proceedings, and he and editor Scott Chestnut skillfully match some of Mike’s observant voiceovers with the visuals, notably in an Atlantic City scene in which he sizes up all the losers who sit down at his table. But pic lacks the bite and sense of insidiousness found in Dahl’s earlier work, and the big card games don’t convey the expected tension and excitement.

If anything, the underachieving “Rounders,” which has been evocatively lensed on Gotham-area locations by Jean Yves Escoffier, serves as a reminder of how long it’s been since there’s been a first-rate film about the gambling life, and of how ready the contemporary public would be for such a pic, along the lines of “The Hustler” or “The Sting.” But this isn’t it.

Rounders

Production

A Miramax release of a Spanky Pictures production. Produced by Joel Stillerman, Ted Demme. Executive producers, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Bobby Cohen, Kerry Orent. Directed by John Dahl. Screenplay, David Levien, Brian Koppelman.

With

Mike McDermott - Matt Damon Worm - Edward Norton Joey Kinish - John Turturro Jo - Gretchen Mol Petra - Famke Janssen Teddy KGB - John Malkovich Abe Petrovsky - Martin Landau Grama - Michael Rispoli Barbara - Melina Kanakaredes Zagosh - Josh Mostel Savino - Lenny Clarke Judge Marinacci - Tom Aldredge
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