Pedigree can be a dangerous thing. Trumpeting the high-profile names of those involved is a way to make prospective ticket buyers trust your work before they know it, but even the most respected actors and filmmakers can’t bat a thousand. So, when a film comes along on the cusp of awards season “from the director of something that was nominated a while back” and “the star of that movie” that everyone kind of liked, viewer beware—you might be getting hustled worse than Justin Timberlake in an online poker scam. Director Brad Furman’s new film, Runner Runner, has many of the same advantages as his previous effort, The Lincoln Lawyer—great timing with a buzzworthy cast (Matthew McConaughey on the heels of a Magic Mike- and Mud-fueled resurgence, the recently Dark Knighted Ben Affleck and Mr 20/0 Experience himself, Justin Timberlake). But it also has many of the same weaknesses—ultimately failing to deliver on a promising premise, no matter how exciting the key players may be.
That setup introduces us to Richie Furst (Timberlake, with an obviously symbolic name alert) gambling away his Ivy League tuition, getting cheated, and heading to Costa Rica to confront the man responsible, Ivan Block (Affleck). Block, a charismatic criminal, has the standard enticing offer—Richie can have his money back, or he can go to work in the tropical paradise, running errands and helping run the operation, with the promise of a lot more money. Block is a call back to Affleck’s character from Boiler Room, the underrated financial thriller where he also plays a bombastic douchebag with a surreal life and questionable morals. He does his best with hammy lines about the name of his boat and what lengths his employees should go to, but as with the congenial Timberlake, the whole thing feels like they were told to never color outside the lines.
Speaking of JT, it has become clear after a decent sample size of his film work that the best weapon in his arsenal is his charisma. David Fincher used it best in The Social Network, when Timberlake played paranoid internet hotshot Sean Parker to great effect. But muting that panache reduces the triple threat into a single note—nice, but boring. It’s fun to see him ascend through the ranks of the underground gambling world via music video montages full of fast cars and stacks of cash, but anyone could stand in for that fantasy. Timberlake was cast for his name, not his ability to play the role, and it shows.
There are players here capable of rising to the task, though. Gemma Arterton plays Block’s ex-girlfriend, and she is luminous on screen. Anthony Mackie is the FBI agent trying to lure Richie back to the other side of the law, and John Heard plays Richie’s degenerate gambler dad, bad beats etched in every line of his weary face. But none of the actors are given a hand they can play—they are all woefully underused. Runner Runner seems much more concerned with frenetically speeding toward a destination everyone can see coming rather than pausing to take a few risks along the way. Every time the film threatens to rise to the greatness of another gambling film like Rounders (one of the previous credits for the screenwriters, Brian Koppelman and David Levien), stilted voiceover, predictable plot twists and style over substance bring it crashing back into the company of something more like 21. Its pedigree may seem like a trump card, but make no mistake—Runner Runner is bluffing.
Director: Brad Furman
Writer: Brian Koppelman, David Levien
Starring: Justin Timberlake, Gemma Arterton, Ben Affleck
Release Date: Oct. 4, 2013