Rounders May 3, 2016
Some consider 1998’s Rounders to be House of Games (1987) lite, but I prefer to think of it as a charming little thriller set in the world of high stakes poker, less a game of cat-and-mouse and more a slithering battle of wits. It stars a Good Will Hunting fresh Matt Damon as Mike McDermott, a young law student who precariously throws his tuition money away after an impossible poker match with a Russian mob leader (John Malkovich). Though normally a god of the cards immune to failure, the mishap scares him straight. In the following nine months, he attempts to earn back the money he lost by working as a garbage man. He’d probably fall apart if it weren’t for Jo (Gretchen Mol), a fellow aspiring lawyer with whom he’s living.
But despite his newfound decision to never undergo the risks of bluffing and gambling ever again, he is drawn back into his old habits by Les “Worm” Murphy (Edward Norton), a childhood friend and hustler recently released from prison. Being the cad that he is, Worm is still indebted to the very same man Mike lost his college money to, his incarceration coming immediately after a losing game. In danger and determined to be the financial mastermind he once was, Worm persuades Mike to start “rounding” again, derailing his tuitional plans and harming his marriage-bound romance with Jo.
Though I’m not so savvy when it comes to the world of poker, Rounders is, nevertheless, an entertaining drama that owes much of its appeal to its performers, who overcome the sometimes nitty gritty details of the film that slow down its momentum. Surprisingly, it is at its most underwhelming when portraying scenes of simulated poker — while I’m sure fans and incessant players of the game will find much to enjoy within them (Rounders has become a cult hit for such audience members), the movie is more luring when enamored with its characters, when its mind games are flashy but not urgent.
So it’s a good thing that the screenplay, by David Levien and Brian Koppelman, takes the time to craft engaging characters to supplement all the action. Damon’s Mike is a substantial main, and Norton’s Worm is impeccably slimy in an endearing way. But I’ll also admit that Mol and Famke Janssen are wasted in stereotypical female supporting roles, and Malkovich is annoyingly hammy as the film’s antagonist. But the film’s noiry look (but not feel), along with its perfectly cast leading men, takes it from middling to sizzling. Just don’t expect to remember it in a year’s time — we have House of Games for that, and Rounders isn’t as hard-driving. B-