Director John Dahl offers a thorough look at underground poker, but little to make us care.
Thursday, September 17, 1998
Though it deals us a pleasantly engaging look at New York''s underground world of high-stakes poker games, Rounders is hardly the straight flush we''ve been anticipating ever since director John Dahl electrified the screen with his neo-noir thrillers Red Rock West and The Last Seduction.
Rounders provides a total immersion into the world of professional poker hustlers--or rounders--and the experience is fascinating and drenched in atmospheric allure. And through some combination of the screenplay (by David Levien and Brian Koppelman) and the actors, wonderful characters manage to emerge on the screen. But the narrative, ultimately, does little to develop these characters beyond the traits that are singled out upon their introduction and the storyline follows through in a fairly predictable fashion, offering little in the way of surprise or discovery.
Mike (Matt Damon) is a master card player who has traded his chips for some law books and a shot at the straight life, complete with law-student girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol) and a chance at a clerkship. But then his old friend Worm (Edward Norton) gets released from Riker''s and draws Mike back into the game. Irresponsible and carrying a few debts from back before he went to prison, Worm is everything Jo fears. Mike gets sucked back in and Jo walks and the rest of the film deals with Mike and Worm''s cagey two-step of old loyalties and new tests of friendship. Throughout, Mike''s voiceover narrates the story, providing a wealth of information about the milieu but astonishingly little about himself or his thinking. For someone who is so drawn to the game and claims to come to life while at the table, the film gives us little sense of the thrill or the rush he experiences. That is the heart of what''s missing here: the buzz that unites these games and players, the seductive lure that excites as it also placates.
The dramatic throughline is murky as well. Is this a story about friendship? A young man''s maturation? A love story? A subculture study? A tribute to professionalism? Rounders touches on all these themes but fails to follow any of them through to their logical conclusions. Undeniably good are the performances, however. Damon continues his ascent into durable leading-man status; Norton is scuzzily colorful in what can only be described as the Sean Penn bad-boy role; John Turturro is rock-solid as Mike''s steadying influence, Joey Knish; Martin Landau delivers a crisp turn as Mike''s law-school mentor; and John Malkovich lets his colors fly as the seedy, heavily-accented, Russian-mafia card sharp, Teddy KGB.
Rounders has little trouble maintaining our interest, it''s just that the stakes are disappointingly meager. cw