×

Film Review: ‘Runner Runner’

Director Brad Furman Benefits From Timely Casting, but 'Runner Runner' Never Gets Out of the Gate

With:

Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton, Anthony Mackey, Michael Esper, John Heard, Ben Schwartz, Yul Vazquez, Bob Gunton, Oliver Cooper, Christian George.

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.

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Runner Runner'

Reviewed at Pacific's the Grove Stadium 14, Los Angeles, Sept. 23, 2013. MPAA rating: R. Running time: 91 MIN.

Production:

A 20th  Century Fox release of a Regency Entertainment presentation of a New Regency, Appian Way, Double Feature Films production. Produced by Arnon Milchan, Jennifer Davisson Killoran, Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Brian Koppelman, David Levien. Executive producers, Erik Holmberg, Brad Weston.

Crew:

Directed by Brad Furman. Screenplay, Brian Koppelman, David Levien. Camera (color, Deluxe), Mauro Fiore; editor, Jeff McEvoy; music, Christophe Beck; costume designer, Sophie de Rakoff; art director, Sarah Contant; set decorator, Monica Monserrate Llenza; sound (Datasat), Steve Morantz; supervising sound editor, Steven Ticknor; re-recording mixers, Deb Adair, Ticknor; visual effects, Method Studios, Freestyle VFX, VFX Cloud, visual effects supervisors, Dan Seddon, Jim Rider, Jonathan Shore, Erika Sivertson; assistant director, Joe Camp III, David M. Bernstein; casting, Ronna Kress.

With:

Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton, Anthony Mackey, Michael Esper, John Heard, Ben Schwartz, Yul Vazquez, Bob Gunton, Oliver Cooper, Christian George.

More Film

  • Samuel-W.-Gelfman

    Samuel Gelfman, Roger Corman Film Producer, Dies at 88

    Samuel Gelfman, a New York producer known for his work on Roger Corman’s “Caged Heat,” “Cockfighter” and “Cannonball!,” died Thursday morning at UCLA Hospital in Westwood following complications from heart and respiratory disease, his son Peter Gelfman confirmed. He was 88. Gelfman was born in Brooklyn, New York and was raised in Caldwell New Jersey [...]

  • Margot Robbie stars in ONCE UPON

    Box Office: 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' Pulls Ahead of 'Hobbs & Shaw' Overseas

    Sony’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” might not have hit No. 1 in North America, but Quentin Tarantino’s latest film is leading the way at the international box office, where it collected $53.7 million from 46 markets. That marks the best foreign opening of Tarantino’s career, coming in ahead of 2012’s “Django Unchained.” “Once [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Leads Crowded Weekend With $21 Million

    The Bean Bag Boys, the self-appointed nickname for the trio of best friends in Universal’s “Good Boys,” are conquering much more than sixth grade. They are also leading the domestic box office, exceeding expectations and collecting $21 million on opening weekend. “Good Boys,” which screened at 3,204 North American theaters, is a much-needed win for [...]

  • Amanda Awards

    ‘Out Stealing Horses’ Tops Norway’s 2019 Amanda Awards

    HAUGESUND, Norway —  Hans Petter Moland’s sweeping literary adaptation “Out Stealing Horses” put in a dominant showing at Norway’s Amanda Awards on Saturday night, placing first with a collected five awards, including best Norwegian film. Celebrating its 35th edition this year, the Norwegian industry’s top film prize helped kick off the Haugesund Film Festival and [...]

  • Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    Richard Williams, 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' Animator, Dies at 86

    Renowned animator Richard Williams, best known for his work on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” died Friday at his home in Bristol, England, Variety has confirmed. He was 86. Williams was a distinguished animator, director, producer, author and teacher whose work has garnered three Oscars and three BAFTA Awards. In addition to his groundbreaking work as [...]

  • Instinct

    Locarno Film Review: 'Instinct'

    Now that “Game of Thrones” has finally reached its conclusion, releasing its gifted international ensemble into the casting wilds, will Hollywood remember just what it has in Carice van Houten? It’s not that the statuesque Dutch thesp hasn’t been consistently employed since her startling 2006 breakout in Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” or even that she’s [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Eyes Best Original Comedy Opening of 2019

    Universal’s “Good Boys” is surpassing expectations as it heads toward an estimated $20.8 million opening weekend at the domestic box office following $8.3 million in Friday ticket sales. That’s well above earlier estimates which placed the film in the $12 million to $15 million range, marking the first R-rated comedy to open at No. 1 [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content