October 17, 2013

Runner, Runner Loses a Gamble With Itself

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“I love fucking over Princeton guys … ‘cuz I went to Rutgers,” says Shavers, an FBI agent who tries to scare Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) into making a bust on Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), owner of a not-so-legal offshore gambling website based in Costa Rica. Unfortunately, just like Shaver’s line, Runner, Runner is somewhat of a joke.

The story follows Richie, a graduate student in finance at Princeton who tries to earn his tuition through gambling what he has on online poker in the aftermath of the crash of Wall Street. He loses all he has one day and realizes that an algorithm built into Block’s website is cheating its users. He naïvely thinks he is doing both people a favor when he decides to fly to Costa Rica to confront Block about his discovery. Block, having Richie figured out quickly, does not shoot the latter dead on the spot; instead, Richie lands the dream job he could only dream of back in Jersey. Given the illegal nature of Block’s business, Richie is caught in a perilous position, both with Block’s posse and the American authorities, namely Agent Shavers.

Although it is hyped to be a relevant and intriguing thriller with huge star power — the film not only stars two of the biggest celebrities in Affleck and Timberlake, but also is produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, arguably one of the biggest names that can be associated with a project — Runner, Runner is a film about gambling that lost its own bet. The ninety-minute plot is choppy to say the least, as if someone cut it up because it was too long initially. Due to this subpar plot, the story is not developed and lacks the intrigue that it sought from its audience. Richie was the protagonist of the film, yet what happens to him at the end does not offer any catharsis; Block was the antagonist, yet his fall is more expected than satisfying. Every other character in between ranges from a pretty face to a waste of space.

Runner, Runner might be an indication that the old Ben Affleck is back, one that is on par with what we saw in Gigli. Affleck, who just had a very successful stint with Argo, might have a less than mediocre screenplay to blame for his unrealistic portrayal of Block but he did nothing to salvage the film. Block seems to have some deeper thoughts inside his dark frame. To prove that Block has some intelligent thoughts within that pretty head of his, Richie is made to find out later in the film that he has been played the whole time. However, throughout the movie, one could only imagine that there is a deeper layer to Block’s scheme. Repeatedly, Block explodes hysterically in order to demonstrate to Richie that the business they are in requires sacrifices and unquestioning loyalty. However, these moments are so abrupt that their purpose is lost. The audience knows not whether to blame the lack of development in the film or poor acting from Affleck. One thing is certain: Affleck’s most important moments in Runner, Runner found many dozing in theaters.

Justin Timberlake proves to be the biggest asset of the film, even though his efforts cannot be compared to his best. One reason he is more relevant is that we see more character development than is allowed for Block. Richie has a history on Wall Street, a dysfunctional family that many can connect with, genius friends who for better or worse care about him, and a physical attraction to the prettiest face in the film, Rebecca (Gemma Atherton). Given that is has been just a few years since the crash of Wall Street, we sincerely cared for Richie at the start of the film. However, everything goes downhill after his arrival in Costa Rica. Timberlake’s performance initially seemed genuine and plausible. Although a little old, he could be a jaded banker trying to find another life at an Ivy League. However, his performance does not adequately add to the suspense that is needed in a thriller such as this. In a scene where Block’s posse takes him to a crocodile pond, one can tell Richie was trying to be nervous. For most of the film, Timberlake’s efforts are just that: attempts that fail to translate into intrigue. At the end of the film, Richie is quickly forgotten because his struggles were not noteworthy.

All in all, Runner, Runner offers an uninteresting and underdeveloped story that had potential to be exciting. The romance between Richie and Rebecca was confusing because the relationship between Block and Rebecca was never truly defined. Thus, when Rebecca betrays her boss and runs off with Richie at the end, the impact is lost. The film serves perhaps as an example that star power alone does not make a movie. Given the performance that Affleck and Timberlake gave, they definitely did not help much, either.