The pitch for “Runner Runner” actually sounds pretty good. It suggests a fast-paced crime thriller featuring Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck set against an exotic tropical backdrop.
But the final product, unfortunately, is a jumbled, confusing film that leaves a lot to be desired. It seems co-writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien weren’t too concerned with the plot, which skips around as needed and sports holes big enough to swallow a Hummer limousine.
Timberlake plays Richie Furst, a Princeton University student paying for his master’s degree with winnings from online gambling. After losing everything in an attempt to get rid of his overdue tuition bill, Richie discovers he was cheated, and flies to Costa Rica to confront the man in charge of the gambling site, Ivan Block (Affleck). One of Richie’s Princeton friends gets a moment to shine as “Mr. Exposition,” explaining the ludicrousness of such a mission. But Richie remains as undeterred as the filmmaker; director Brad Furman cuts right from this sequence to Costa Rica, placing Richie directly in the center of shots intercut with glimpses of colorful glitz, dancing and deadmau5 (seriously).
Affleck is totally at ease as Ivan, wonderfully hamming it up as the resident kingpin. He takes Timberlake’s Richie into his exciting, dangerous world, and he looks committed and amused in his role. Affleck makes Ivan a legitimately intimidating character, mixing head honcho self-assuredness and put-the-foot-down scenery chewing while never once lacking in charisma.
Gemma Arterton also stars, but doesn’t have much to do besides walk around at night in pretty dresses, the ambient lighting catching her voluminous chestnut hair and golden skin. Her character, Rebecca, is the physical embodiment of the film’s arbitrary writing: she literally shows up whenever the plot needs her and displays neither responsibility nor care for what transpires around her. I’m not sure if she’s Ivan’s partner in crime, or his former girlfriend; in the overall scheme of the film, it really doesn’t matter. I got the impression the only reason she is given higher billing than Ben Affleck on the poster is that the length of her surname fits aesthetically between “Timberlake” and “Affleck.”
Speaking of, Timberlake isn’t terrible, but he isn’t terribly convincing, either. His Richie Furst has none of the presence that his turns as Sean Parker in 2010’s “The Social Network.” When he’s not half-heartedly adopting Ivan’s aggressive do-what-you-need-to-do attitude, Richie looks almost bored. You can’t blame him, since the muddled plot makes everything look too easy, but his underwhelming performance is still a drag.
If JT is the reason you’re thinking about seeing this film, save your money. The man is certainly very talented, but “Runner Runner” is not the place to look for a good example of his acting chops. On a brighter note, he just dropped a new album, so if Timberlake the actor isn’t doing it for you, maybe Timberlake the musician can pick up the slack.
Cast and characters aside, the real problem with this movie is that it lacks any sense of urgency. The online poker focus could have been substituted cleanly for, say, drug trafficking, and the change probably wouldn’t draw attention to itself. You’re not made to truly care about what you’re seeing, because the film flies by without anchoring itself in real stakes or logical sense.
The lack in coherence doesn’t serve the film well, even as it reflects Ivan Block’s carefree abandon. It’s not supposed to be confusing, but the wild storytelling sticks out more than anything else. When the final scene transitioned to the credits, I found myself unmoved, almost apathetic to what had transpired. “Runner Runner” wants to be a kinetic, sexy and shady cinematic game, but there are no winners here, just a convoluted, misguided mess.
Nathan Frontiero can be reached at [email protected]