Runner, Runner

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Directed by: Brad Furman
Starring: Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton
Review: 1.5 stars (of five)

This weekend, Gravity provided a rare example of why we need Hollywood:  Straightforward storytelling, runaway-train thrills, cutting-edge effects, A-list stars.  Hollywood exists to deliver “big,” and even sitting through Gravity a second time, I was spellbound and grateful for that giant LA machine.

Runner, Runner, on the other hand, is an equally powerful argument for throwing a giant net around Los Angeles, dragging it out to see and sinking it somewhere off the continental shelf.  (Actually, LA itself is the best argument for that.)  This movie is brainless, incoherent, formulaic, bloated and uninspired.  In its small way, it’s the anti-Gravity, and anyone who sees this film should immediately dose themselves with 10 to 14 hours of non-Hollywood DVDs until they learn to love cinema again.

The story:  Justin Timberlake is a victim of the Wall Street collapse (he wanted to be one of the weasels but then his firm collapsed, under the weight of its own malfeasance and evil, so he’s some kind of victim), now getting an advanced degree in, I don’t know, corporate skullduggery, from Princeton.  Flat broke, the poor dear is making money be referring students and professors to online gaming sites, where like chumps they lose their money.  The point here is that, just as JT was only a junior weasel at his evil Wall Street firm, here he is merely introducing idiots to the idea of online gambling.  He’s not taking their money, forcing them to bet, causing them to lose.  He is part of a shady racket, but he’s at arms length, with arguably clean hands.

Then he loses his money in a crooked online casino and goes all the way to Costa Rica to confront the casino’s owner, Ben Affleck.  Then he gets hired.  Then he gets deeper and deeper into truly shady dealings.  He gets his hands well and truly dirty.  Then he realizes Affleck is setting him up, so he has to beat the big bad guy at his own game.  Note that this is not a moral awakening–Affleck is scheming against Timberlake, and therefore Timberlake must outwit him.  Survival.  Not to clear his conscience, not to repent, not to make the world a better place.  Another highlight of brain-dead corporate Hollywood flickmaking:  no moral compass; not even the awareness that you could have a moral compass.

RR02Storytelling failures abound. Start with the dialogue.  While I’m ready to believe that people in the world of gambling routinely spout cheesy lines like, “You gotta know when to double down,” or “it’s time to cash in your chips,” or whatever, this script is like Kenny Rogers’ most famous lyric blown out to 100 pages.

And then there are the characters, or lack thereof:  Timberlake has “friends” who do nothing but offer minor plot advancements–I didn’t even know their names as I watched the movie.  Affleck has a sort-of-girlfriend (open relationship, maybe, but are they still at all an item?  Dunno.) played by Gemma Arterton, who appealingly occupies the exact middle ground between “girl next door” and “supermodel.”  Here she’s given virtually nothing to do.  She’s sort of a trophy, largely a cipher, occasionally a source of needed exposition.  Her character seems potentially interesting:  She recognizes that Affleck is a dirty bastard, but stays with him.  But seems to be essentially a good person.  What might make for a complex character in the hands of competent writers here comes across as a mess.

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I could continue, but there’s nothing more to say.  The film starts out with marginal promise, I suppose, but just ticks off cliches and half-hearted story beats cribbed from some crappy screenwriting text in single-minded pursuit of the closing credits and a paycheck.  There are those who believe that there are Heaven and Hell, and those who also believe that between them, neutral, is Limbo, the basically the afterlife’s dull combination of waiting room and holding cell: Neither delight nor torment, just gray tedium.  If Limbo exists, all its theaters will show this movie, forever.