Online poker combines the high stakes and real risks of gambling, but allows the gambler to sit at home wearing decade-old boxers and eating spoonfuls of Nutella, while losing (or winning) thousands of dollars. The money is real, but the glamour and mystique are missing. “Runner Runner,” starring Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck, works in the opposite way; we get the flashy handsomeness of our leading men and the glitz of the (apparently massive) Costa Rican gambling world, without gaining any insight into who these characters are and what the hell they’re doing.
Richie (Timberlake, “Inside Llewyn Davis”) is a Princeton grad student and former Wall Street big-wig — the devious-genius type that Timberlake successfully portrayed in “The Social Network,” but comes across as robotically smarmy here — who takes to online poker in order to pay his school bills. (Ben Schwartz from “Parks and Recreation” is utterly wasted as Richie’s doubtful and un-funny best friend, with only 10 minutes of screen time.)
In our hyper-accelerated world, technology-speak from just a few years ago feels dated. Richie is a former Wall Streeter laid off in the Great Recession, and when the disconcertingly slick Ivan Block (Affleck, “Argo”) offers him a position at his powerhouse online gaming company, Richie jumps, taken in like so many movie men by the beautiful women and ever-flowing alcohol of this high-flying lifestyle.
Once in Costa Rica, Richie begins to discover the shocking truth of Block’s corruption, using phrases like “negative three sigma” and other seemingly made-up Internet jargon to describe what appears to be a basic Ponzi scheme. He runs from FBI agents in fedoras, easily seduces Block’s chippy assistant (Gemma Arterton, “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters”) and innocently ignores the plainly psychotic tendencies of his boss. Richie looks great and has some catchy one-liners, but Timberlake fails to make him interesting.
While Richie doesn’t have a personality, Ivan is just too much of everything: over-sexed, brash, apparently brilliant but mentally unstable — and too tan. Way too tan. Affleck can’t pull off this over-the-top mad man, and a character that is supposed to be chilling is actually funny — he speaks awful Spanish and flings men into crocodile-invested waters with a flamboyant flourish.
The film pretends to be innovative because of the flashy scenery and tight camera zooms, but just like Block, it’s fizzy, not fun, superficial yet still boring. It’s as though director Brad Furman (“The Lincoln Lawyer”) was trying to make the film into so many archetypes: a sexy thriller, a pertinent internet saga, a PSA against gambling and a flashy action film. What ends up happening, though, is that every aspect is stretched too thin, making the film ultimately underwhelming. The dialogue lacks both human quality and fresh snap, the “bad” characters fail to exude real evil and the good characters are weak ninnies. In not recognizing it’s own ridiculousness, “Runner Runner” fails at even just amusing.