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Non-Review Review: Runner Runner

Runner Runner feels like it should be a lot more fun than it winds up being. For a film about gambling, it lays the cards on the table pretty quickly. It’s a story about an ambitious young man who is offered wealth and success, only to eventually discover that the price is nothing less than his soul. As such, our plucky young hero has to keep all the plates spinning as the walls close in around him, trying to keep his head above water and the wolves from his door. There are, of course, other clichés I can throw in there, but these will do for now.

As such, Runner Runner isn’t about originality or insight, borrowing heavily from far better character studies and morality plays – even the casting of Justin Timberlake as a nerdy internet-savvy college student feels like a riff on his role in The Social NetworkRunner Runner is all about the execution of these familiar high concepts and plot points. Unfortunately, the movie never seems too invested in its stakes, or too engaged with the game it is playing. When the chips are down, Runner Runner can nothing but fold.

I want to believe this is the same look Ben Affleck had when reading the internet's response to Batffleck...

I want to believe this is the same look Ben Affleck had when reading the internet’s response to Batffleck…

There’s a reason that morality plays about financial impropriety work so well, similar to gangster stories or crime films. They invite the audience into a lavish and absurdly luxurious life style, earned through ill-gotten gains and secured with reckless disregard for anybody else.  And then, of course, the characters are punished for that excess. Order is restored. We’re assured that nobody can really live that sort of reckless rule-free existence for long, before they are brought back down to Earth.

Those optimistic individuals among us can suggest that audience feels some small measure of catharsis in watching these individuals get what is coming to them. Cynics would argue there’s an element of selfish wish fulfilment involved, as we watch these characters indulge in excess that most viewers will never know first hand. It’s a debate that rages over all manner of crime and gangster films, as audiences and film makers try to determine whether these sorts of films “glorify” or “glamourise” these sorts of crooked lifestyles.

All at sea...

All at sea…

The best films in those sorts of subgenres play with our expectations – they manage to catch us off guard, or force us to question our passive complicity. They invite us to sympathise with these corrupt individuals living their lives of materialist excess, earned at the expense of people less fortunate. Runner Runner isn’t nearly smart enough to have a handle on this, but it does put us in the strange situation of rooting for the movie’s villain; unfortunately because none of the other characters are the least bit interesting.

Runner Runner suffers from crippling casting and scripting problems. Characters struggle to be two-dimensional, as the movie tries to make us care about our protagonist. The script clumsily hits familiar buttons. His father is a gambler who is in deep to the wrong people. He had a lovely job lined up, but then the recession happened. He is struggling to pay his tuition at Princeton. These are all the elements of a tragic and sympathetic back story, but Runner Runner strikes them half-heartedly, in the most awkward manner possible.

Not quite a runner...

Not quite a runner…

Justin Timberlake provides irritating voice over that underscores the film, and he’s introduced talking to a professor who just lost massive amounts of money on on-line gambling. He awkwardly works in his sob story about his tuition and the lost job, while making it clear that he’s only a middle-man and thus not really responsible for taking people’s money. Almost immediately, he’s hauled in front of the dean when a student runs up substantial debts on his father’s credit cards.

It’s not the most organic way of developing character, and Runner Runner suffers because it never seems too concerned about anything except reaching the end credits. The plot moves quickly along, as we follow our lead from one decision to another. Things barely get a chance to settle down between sudden shifts or radical revelations. There’s a sense of a movie desperately running through the motions in the briskest manner possible. It’s not about doing things well, it’s about doing them at all.

It never takes off...

It never takes off…

Timberlake struggles in the lead role. Playing a young man tempted by incredible wealth, Timberlake never gives us a sense of what our lead is actually about. Timberlake was phenomenal in The Social Network, playing a slimy alpha male with all manner of personal insecurities. In Runner, Runner, he’s much less convincing as a put-upon student trying to hold on to his soul amid wave after wave of moral corruption. Timberlake always seems most comfortable playing into the character’s conscience-less selfish tendencies, but it makes his character very hard to root for.

Gemma Arterton pops up as the obligatory love interest. Like everything else, there’s a real sense that her character only exists because the movie needs a major female character to serve as a token to be contested against the two male leads. Arterton feels woefully miscast as a player in this high-stakes moral game, but the film never bothers to define her character. We never discover why she makes the choices that she makes, or why our protagonist decides to trust her in spite of everything.

P-p-poker face!

P-p-poker face!

On the other hand, Ben Affleck is delightfully slimy as the villain of the piece. Like Timberlake and Arterton, Affleck is hardly the most versatile of performers. He tends to play alpha male characters well, exuding a sort of posturing machismo which can play into either an all-American hero or a total unethical and self-righteous scumbag. Affleck is clearly playing the latter here, as the head of an on-line gambling company up to some very questionable dealings.

Affleck’s character is so absurdly over the top that he dominates the film, simply by existing. Affleck plays the character with an unapologetic swagger, an affable sociopath. After getting our lead brutally beaten in the street, he confesses, “I didn’t know this was going to happen. But if I had to do it again, I would.” Hanging a business partner out to dry, he’s sure to assert how lovely that guy was. He even gets to own crocodiles, something he relishes.

Walks of life...

Walks of life…

Of course, Runner Runner is hardly consistent. Affleck’s corporate kingpin goes from white-collar criminal to Bond villain and back again with incredible swiftness. There’s a scene in the middle of the film that exists solely to prove that you don’t mess with the character, but it feels incredibly out of context with everything else we know about his operation. It’s almost as if Runner Runner doesn’t trust us to recognise corporate crime as inherently evil, and so a gratuitous demonstration is in order.

Runner Runner is an awkward, clumsy film that really should be much more fun than it ultimately is.

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6 Responses

  1. I really enjoyed reading this review… the thought pattern and flow of insight from the author was interesting. Will definitely bookmark. A little verbal though…. remember the sentence “I’ve never met a man that is able to put the smallest idea into so many words”. Doesn’t apply here but still…

  2. Excellent review of a terrible movie. I completely agree.

    Especially on the gratuitous evil scene. It was awful.

    • Yep. Because white collar crime isn’t evil enough for a big screen bad guy! It’s also just so random… I know he has leverage, but what does inviting Justin Timberlake into his little circle of “people who could get me convicted of murder” get him? Surely implied threats and control of his father are enough to assure his control of his employee, with revealing yourself to be a very violent temper-driven psychopath being perhaps a step too far?

  3. As mentioned in a previous review, this film is a bit too familiar to be an exciting watch. Having said that, the performances, particularly Affleck, were of good quality and each leading actor portrayed their characters well. This is not an intelligent nor original film, but the location and storyline do add a sense of refreshment to the formulaic ‘good guy trumps’ action/thriller plot. I enjoyed the film. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat, nor was I glued to the screen, but the fact that we had the whole screening room to ourselves meant that we could quip freely about what was going on, and this naturally added to my enjoyment. There were a few unintentionally funny moments, mostly near the end, but that may be more of a personal observation and many viewers may have a different view on that. Affleck was convincing and strong as the shady, ruthless business tycoon and delivered his lines with appealing finesse. Timberlake was a good choice for the role as an initially thin-skinned Prinston student, and his development as a character was well-timed throughout. Overall, I enjoyed the film, but it’s not one I would rave about to friends. ‘Prisoners’ was showing at the same time and while I haven’t seen it yet, I can say with a relative degree of certainty that it would be a more compelling and rewarding watch.

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