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Thursday, July 3, 2014

Netflix Recommends... Runner Runner (2013)

* 1/2

Director: Brad Furman
Starring: Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton

I've mentioned before that whatever algorithm Netflix uses to create its recommendations is basically incomprehensible. A while ago Netflix "recommended" The Canyons for me, even though its best guess for how I would rate it was 1.5 stars. This time Netflix recommended Runner Runner despite assuming that I would rate it 1.5 stars (good guess!). Now, I learned a lesson with The Canyons, but I was intrigued by the fact that Netflix was recommending Runner Runner to me based on my having watched Orange is the New Black. What on earth, I wondered, could a gambling thriller headlined by Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck have in common with a comedy/drama series set in a women's prison? I won't leave you in suspense: nothing. There is absolutely nothing that Runner Runner and Orange is the New Black have in common, unless you count the fact that every once in a while characters in each speak a little bit of Spanish.

Timberlake stars as Richie Furst, a grad student paying his way through Princeton by referring other students to online gambling establishments for a commission. While that, in and of itself, is nearly enough to get him expelled, he's also been wagering the money he has to pay tuition and ends up losing it all in one long night online. After getting proof that he was cheated out of his money, he decides to head down to Costa Rica where Ivan Block (Affleck), the owner of the site, can be found. Block, however, is almost untouchable behind heavy security so Richie has to get creative to get his attention, which he does with a bit of an assist from Rebecca Shafran (Gemma Arterton), who works for Ivan and has a nebulously defined personal relationship with him. Claiming to be grateful for Richie's assistance in discovering the cheat code and those who have been using it, Ivan offers Richie a job which promises to make him a millionaire and Richie accepts. Soon Richie is running the floor at the establishment that acts as Ivan's homebase while also making time with Rebecca, despite the many glowering looks from Ivan that this inspires.

Richie's life in paradise is short-lived, however, as a month or so in he finds himself black-bagged and brought to a meeting with FBI Agent Shavers (Anthony Mackie), who tries to blackmail and intimidate him into becoming an informant. Richie refuses, having been convinced by Ivan that the FBI can't touch them because what happens in Costa Rica is beyond their jurisdiction, but it isn't much longer before he realizes that being on Ivan's side is exactly the wrong side to be on. For one thing, he discovers that Ivan's gambling empire is built on a Ponzi scheme on the verge of unraveling. For another, Ivan proves himself to be far more dangerous than Richie at first suspected, setting Richie up to take a beating, threatening to feed his enemies to crocodiles, and then buying a debt owed by Richie's father and bringing him to Costa Rica in order to have further leverage to keep Richie in line. Knowing that he needs to get out, but not quite trusting the FBI to help him, he enlists Rebecca's help but, as the noose begins to tighten around Ivan's neck, Ivan starts to execute a plan of his own.

Filmed in Puerto Rico, Runner Runner features a lot of beautiful location footage. That is the only nice thing I have to say about this movie, because everything else about it is a mess, a disappointment, or a wasted opportunity. In the wasted opportunity category you have Mackie, a very good actor relegated here to playing the worst law enforcement officer ever, and Arterton, an actress who can combine a deep and compelling vulnerability with intense sensuality, who the film uses as little more than decoration. Arterton's role, or lack thereof, in the film is particularly confusing in light of the fact that so much of the film's resolution hinges on the barely formed love triangle between her character, Richie, and Ivan. At some point in the recent past Rebecca and Ivan were lovers. It's never really clear whether or not they still are in the film's present day. Then Richie shows up and starts circling Rebecca, which makes Ivan jealous, except that maybe he doesn't really care? Ivan seems only sporadically interested in what's going on between Richie and Rebecca, perhaps because the film itself is only sporadically interested in them, which only makes Agent Shavers' climactic taunt that Richie will take care of Ivan's "girl" while he's in prison seem empty and lame. Runner Runner doesn't write a romantic subplot so much as it relies on the audience's experience of similar narrative setups with similar character types in order to fill in that part of the plot.

The narrative laziness of the subplots is indicative of the largest problem with Runner Runner, which is the screenplay. The film is weighted down with clunky, expository dialogue, and inelegant setups to moments that hardly qualify as "payoffs," such as when Richie is sent to make a deal with the operator of a gambling site that Ivan wants to buy. When the man turns down the offer, Ivan tells Richie to find the man's weakness and use it against him to make him sell. Good thing that at the end of their initial meeting the man told Richie, apropos nothing, about what a great life he has with his wife and the child they're expecting. For someone who starts the film thinking that he's incredibly hard done by, things seem to come awfully easily to Richie when the film decides that it doesn't want to have to work for any of its plot points. Aside from the screenplay, another major weakness of the film is the fact that Timberlake, though good enough in smaller roles, can't really carry a film. If the charisma that he usually displays as a performer weren't entirely absent here, he might have been able to coast on that, but the performance is so limp and the character so empty that there's just no center to Runner Runner. As a viewer, you don't want to see a character like Ivan get away with anything, but you also don't want to see Richie deliver the comeuppance. Honestly, if the film had found a way to end with Ivan being taken down and Richie getting punched repeatedly in the face, I would've given it at least another half-star.

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