How blandly by-the-numbers is “Runner Runner,” the offshore gambling thriller starring Justin Timberlake and a big, bad Ben Affleck? When it’s time for the hot sex scene between Timberlake’s ambitious Richie Furst and Rebecca (Gemma Arterton), his boss’s luscious second-in-command, the encounter is as charmless and chemistry-free as the wooden banter that has led up to it. I’ve had dentist’s appointments that were sexier.
“Everyone gambles,” says Richie, and that would have to include the cast of “Runner Runner” and director Brad Furman (“The Lincoln Lawyer”), who put their money on a dud script and lose. When the film opens, Richie is at Princeton getting his masters in finance after washing out of post-meltdown Wall Street, but his real action is working as an “affiliate” for an online gambling site, helping professors and fellow students lose their shirts.
That’s right, he’s the movie’s hero, which is the first of its problems. Why are we supposed to like this twerp? Because he’s Justin Timberlake? Hasn’t he heard what goes around comes around? In any event, Richie parlays a bad run in online poker into a trip to Costa Rica to confront the site’s millionaire owner, Ivan Block (Affleck). We first meet Block in a sauna quoting Napoleon. That’s before he bribes a few Costa Rican officials and throws Butterball turkeys to his pet CGI crocodiles.
“The man’s like the Wizard of Oz: No one gets behind the curtain,” says one of Richie’s Princeton friends, but Richie does. Within days he’s acting as Block’s trusted associate, blackmailing visiting “affiliates” with sex tapes and dropping bags of cash in seedy Costa Rican bars. So why is he surprised when an FBI agent (Anthony Mackie) tries to co-opt him with tales of his boss’s villainy?
Screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien had better luck at the tables with “Rounders” way back in 1998; their work here feels less like a movie than the template for one. It’s not that “Runner Runner” is predictable. It’s that you don’t care, either about the characters or what happens to them. The rest of the production rises to a similar pitch of mediocrity: Christophe Beck’s score traffics in generic suspense and Arterton’s hair and make-up crew mistakes trampiness for glamour. (At least she has more to do than the rest of the female cast, pool-candy and prostitutes to a woman. Can Costa Rica sue for defamation?)
The stars respond to the silliness by hamming it up. Affleck bellows his sub-sub-Mamet speeches about killing what you eat (or vice versa; I forget) while Mackie’s Fed gets off the few bits of dialogue worth an honest laugh. “I love [screwing] over Princeton guys,” he growls to Richie at one point, “ ’cause I went to Rutgers.”
That’s it — that’s the best line. In a few months, “Runner Runner” will just be more clutter on your On Demand menu, perfect for running in the background while you balance your checkbook or trim your toenails. You can bet on that.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.