Justin-Timberlake-Ben-Affleck-Gemma-Arterton-Runner-Runner

To stumble upon poker’s elusive runner runner, a player has to win his or her hand with critical help from both the fourth and fifth community cards that have been placed face-up on the table by the dealer. The emergence of this sequential twosome (called the turn and the river respectively) as an effective ally is contingent upon little more than dumb luck, yet to the millions of competitors who engage in high stakes poker on a daily basis, either Online or in the glittering casinos of the world, it’s a rare and welcome gift.

Like it’s namesake, Brad Furman’s skin deep new film Runner Runner is also defined by its rarified pairing, this time between two of Hollywood’s brightest, and an up-and-coming director whose first film The Lincoln Lawyer was a genre-defying treat. Sadly though, even with the presence of Timberlake and Affleck, as well as a full throttle cocky charm, this one isn’t nearly as fortuitous.

Just 5 years ago, investment prodigy Richie Furst (Timberlake) was a hot shot Wall Street Trader anticipating a seven-figure salary and a first class ticket to the good life. Then the 2008 global market collapse happened, decimating his hopes of joining a new tax bracket and forcing him to attempt to eek out a “respectable” living. Luckily, the numbers prodigy was accepted into a finance graduate program at Princeton, but paying for the astronomically priced degree isn’t exactly easy, and desperate times call for desperate measures.

This means working part time as a middle man for several online gaming sites. The enterprising grad student encourages his fellow Ivy Leaguers, with their disposable, daddy-funded incomes, to try their luck at a game, and the webmasters pay him handsomely for his trouble. It might appear morally nebulous, but Richie is convinced that he’s simply hooking up consumers with a product that they desire. It’s not until Princeton’s Dean terminates the gig, forcing a desperate Richie to bet the remainder of his own savings in one of these virtual poker games, that he realizes that perhaps these sites aren’t as innocent as they claim to be.

Attempting to get his money back and right this wrong, the precocious upstart follows a trail that leads him to Costa Rica where Ben Affleck’s virtual gaming Kingpin, Ivan Block, leads a Kurtzian life in the Latin American jungle, exploiting the third world country’s numerous tax breaks as well as their plethora of disenfranchised, easily bought officials.

Obviously, Richie’s tempted by this heart of darkness, where he witnesses Block living a larger than life daily existence, but all comparisons to Conrad’s masterpiece, or the legendary film (Apocalypse Now) that it begot end there. That’s because Brian Koppelman’s and David Levien’s hollow script avoids asking any of the complex questions that could have made this a truly great film. Globalization, third world exploitation, or even the climate of an increasingly Online gaming world, are all ignored in deference to enough tired masculine tropes that one gets the feeling that with the sound off, this film could play like an Axe Deodorant Commercial, or an old episode of Entourage. And adding to the butch bombardment is Furman’s uninspired direction, which seems content to drift along with the Maxim Magazine approved flow.

At least the actors give it their Colgate best, to varying degrees of success… Gemma Arterton, the theatrically trained British actress with Angelina Jolie’s smoldering sex appeal and Helena Christensen’s bone structure, fares best as a member of Block’s harem, but one can’t help wondering when this girl will finally be given a role that suits her otherworldly gifts. As for Affleck, the results are mixed: on the one hand, it’s fun to see him ham it up Boiler Room style, but occasionally we’re reminded of the over-the-top, Pacino-biting, turn-of-the-millennium performances (Pearl Harbor, The Sum Of All Fears) that hurt his career way more than dating J. LO ever did.

What can’t be denied about the man though, is that he is a ruggedly masculine onscreen presence. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about Justin Timberlake. Despite owning the stage every time (I mean c’mon, last month’s VMA’s!) and delivering some truly fantastic supporting (Alpha Dog, The Social Network ) and comedic (SNL, Friends With Benefits) performances, he simply lacks the gravitas and the physicality to play a badass grown man onscreen. Thus Timberlake is fine when called to play Richie as a confused man-boy struggling to catch up to his precocious talent, but when asked to believably challenge Affleck’s Block, or worse, seduce the absolutely carnal Arterton, he simply falls laughably short.

Critique aside however, it’s important to note that if one arrives in the theater without any expectations, the film is not entirely a disappointment. Clearly it has its issues, but all in all, Runner Runner is still an entertaining if brainless crowd pleaser. And hey, as this summer’s surprise hit Now You See Me proved, all style and no substance can still generate a winning hand.