It reads like good, pulpy fun on paper: Professional charmer Justin Timberlake plays a Princeton math whiz who falls under the Gordon Gekko-ish spell of a sadistic online poker mogul, played by the equally dashing Ben Affleck, amid the sex-and-sun excess of Costa Rica.
But in Runner Runner, an empty-headed thriller written by the Ocean’s 13 team of Brian Koppelman and David Levien and directed by Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer), the devil is in the details. Or rather, the lack thereof. Characters are sketched in the broadest strokes, plot holes dot the script like punctuation, and online gambling — theoretically the movie’s from-the-headlines hook — is treated the way Hollywood usually treats new technogimmicks: as a mumbo-jumbo MacGuffin meant to distract from a plot that makes no sense from the get-go.
Richie (Timberlake) is a gambling expert who needs his winnings for tuition. But when he loses a lot of money in a few suspicious rounds of online poker, he decides to jet down to the site’s corporate HQ in Costa Rica to… well, that’s where things get fuzzy. Improbably, Richie thinks that he can just march up to the site’s founder, Ivan Block (Affleck), with proof that the rounds were rigged and get his money back in full. Even more improbably, that’s exactly what happens thanks to some nonsense involving silly-sounding statistics, a Gatsby-ish carnival, and a few notes written on invisible ink. If that sounds confusing, rest assured that more explanation would only make it worse.
Timberlake looks handsome as hell in his casual suits and straw hats, but his character doesn’t fit him nearly as well. The script calls for him to be impulsive and furiously ambitious, the kind of guy who doesn’t mind tiptoeing on the edges of the law. But on-screen, Richie comes off as a self-centered dandy. Affleck is more credible — and gets more laughs — chewing the scenery as an Bond-level supervillain (complete with man-eating crocodiles). They’re both undeniably appealing, which only adds to the disappointment of the crappy cards they’ve been dealt by the script. Even the best player can only go so far with a bum hand. C