Whatever his shortcomings as a director, Brad Furman clearly has a knack for timely casting. 2011’s “The Lincoln Lawyer” was a watchable yet unremarkable courtroom drama elevated above its station by a lead turn from Matthew McConaughey just as his late-career resurgence was taking flight. Debut feature “The Take” boasted a key supporting part from recent Emmy winner Bobby Cannavale. And now with “Runner Runner,” Furman snags Justin Timberlake in an intermission between blockbuster album releases, and Ben Affleck between directing an Oscar-winning film and beginning his term at Wayne Manor. Yet despite his stacked deck of a cast, “Runner Runner” adds up to little more than a charmless, paint-by-numbers thriller unlikely to escape the forces of “Gravity” in its early October release.
Starring as a Princeton grad student of indeterminate age, Timberlake plays Richie Furst, a former Wall Street striver whose young career was derailed by the 2008 meltdown. Attempting to pay tuition by hustling fellow students for an online poker company, Richie’s extracurriculars are quickly quashed by Princeton’s crusty old dean, which leaves the young man forced to wager his life’s savings on a round of digital Texas Hold ’Em to stay in school.
“I can’t let short-term variance slow me down,” Richie pledges in a representative example of the film’s stilted voiceover dialogue, yet despite his gambler’s-son credentials and immense mathematical intelligence (as we’re frequently told yet never shown), he’s taken for all he’s worth through circumstances that a buddy statistician tells him are about as probable as winning the lottery four times in a row.
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Bearing evidence of this cheating, Richie heads off to Costa Rica to confront the poker company’s jet-setting CEO Ivan Block (Affleck), who’s been running his empire from abroad. As absurd coincidence would have it, Richie happens to arrive in San Jose on the same weekend as a bacchanalian annual gambler’s convention, and he takes his case to the highest level. Impressed with Richie’s moxie, Block offers him a job.
Like “The Lincoln Lawyer,” “Runner Runner” displays a wealth of show-offy camera techniques that are never quite narratively necessary, but Furman does well to stage Richie’s giddy ascent into the upper echelons of the third-world nouveau riche, replete with stacks of cash, flashy cars, top-shelf liquor (though Richie prefers Bud Light, with whom Timberlake coincidentally has a sponsorship deal) and fancy dames, none fancier than Block’s main squeeze, Rebecca (Gemma Arterton).
Piece by piece, however, Richie begins to suspect his boss may not be an entirely legitimate businessman. His first clue comes when Block approvingly cites Meyer Lansky as an ethical exemplar. His second comes when he watches a cackling Block feed chicken carcasses to the pet crocodiles in his backyard. And all doubts would seem to have been erased when an FBI agent (Anthony Mackie) accosts Richie to enlist his help in Block’s imminent criminal takedown. But the film still has nearly an hour left, so Richie dutifully heads back into his mentor’s questionable embrace.
The proscribed character arc here seems to be the slow process by which greed and accumulated compromises allow innocents to work their way deeper into the heart of corruption, but for all his supposed genius, Richie ultimately registers as a rather dim bulb, continually flailing at the obvious lifelines the script keeps throwing him. At long last he decides to strike back, yet his climactic master plan — teased for the last half-hour through mysterious meetings and payoffs — is forehead-slappingly elementary.
“It’s the gambling business in Costa Rica — occasionally you get punched in the face,” Block quips with shrugged shoulders after Richie has been savagely beaten on his account, in one of several moments where Affleck threatens to make this whole film worthwhile. In spite of the mostly undeserved flack he gets for his acting chops, it’s hard to think of a better thesp than Affleck to play a deliciously despicable douchebag, and his performance here ranks alongside “Boiler Room” and “Mallrats” in that regard. At times one detects a certain eye-rolling impatience with the material as he races distractedly through a few of his master-of-the-universe monologues, yet that’s precisely what the character requires, and “Runner Runner’s” appeal increases dramatically whenever Affleck enters the frame.
As for Timberlake, he’s an entirely competent actor, yet his cinematic charisma seems best exploited by supporting parts at this point in his career, and he’s never totally believable as a babe-in-the-woods whizkid. It doesn’t help that he and Arterton have all the onscreen heat of a bowl of soggy cornflakes, and seem to be thrust together for no reason other than the fact that they’re the two most attractive people in any particular room.
Puerto Rico ably stands in for Costa Rica throughout (considering every Costa Rican depicted here is either a prostitute or an authority figure accepting a bribe, it seems unlikely the country would have signed on), though cinematographer Mauro Fiore never quite renders the natural beauty of the surroundings as luminously as one would expect.